Since the Netherlands became the world’s first nation to recognize same-sex marriage in 2001, the concept has spread rapidly. If Wikipedia is to be believed, at last count 16 national jurisdictions had followed suit. So had 36 U.S. states.
The concept has had its greatest acceptance in Western and Northern Europe, but parts of Latin America have not been far behind.
Things are different in East Asia. Apart from Taiwan, where a legislative committee is considering the subject, same-sex marriage seems – so far, at least – to be a non-starter. Indeed even the less controversial concept of same-sex civil unions has made no headway. The pattern has been remarkably uniform between Japan, South Korea, Hong Kong, Macau, mainland China, and – further to the south – Singapore.
What explains East Asia’s hesitation to embrace what in the West has come to be regarded as a litmus test of enlightenment and progress? It is a good question. After all religion is not a factor. To the extent that East Asian societies are Buddhist or Confucian or both, their idea of religious principle is vague and malleable, and it rarely, if ever, poses much of a restraint on policymakers.
In some nations such as Japan, a constitutional amendment may be required. But where there is a will there is a way, and a requirement to change a constitution has rarely held any Western nation back. (In Europe, even Ireland, a famously Catholic nation, has long since accepted civil unions and will hold a referendum next month on a constitutional change to allow same-sex marriage.)
An informed guess is that East Asian governments are concerned to preserve and enhance the status of traditional male-female marriage. In two respects that institution is much stronger in East Asia than in most of the rest of the developed world:
- Almost all children are born in wedlock.
- Divorce rates are lower than almost anywhere else, and are particularly low when children are small.
Neither of these outcomes results from happenstance. Rather they stem from policy: a web of restraints discourages women from having children outside marriage, and both fathers and mothers are strongly discouraged from divorcing when children are young.
Unlike their Western counterparts, moreover, East Asian mothers suffer no embarrassment in staying at home when their children are small. Of course, not every East Asian career woman gives up her job when her first child arrives but it is generally de rigueur that a loving grandmother or other close relative be available to look after her children. A key objective in all this — probably the key objective — is economic: East Asian societies want each new generation to be better educated and more productive than the last.
Of course, East Asian nations are notably reluctant to explain themselves, and, so far as I am aware, there have been no official statements to shed light on the subject.
A reasonable inference is that if they were to speak frankly, however, they would concur with much of the analysis of the Dublin-based commentator Bruce Arnold, who is a leading anti-gay-marriage campaigner in Ireland.
In a passionate recent article, Arnold wrote:
The institution of fruitful marriages involves society and becomes society. This means that society has a stake in marriage, a belief in its worth. If marriage is seen – as it increasingly is – as a matter that concerns only the parties to the marriage, then society is weakened, as the bond between marriage as the basic unit of society and the wider society is broken.
The process of separating the rights and interests of the parties to a marriage from their duty to society has been going on for many years. While divorce is arguably a necessary feature of marriage law, that does not mean that more than a tiny handful of married people should avail of it. The attitude of society towards marriage has changed and is changing to a degree currently that seems astonishingly fickle and ill-informed.
Of course, for those on the other side, it is far from proven that same-sex marriage undermines the male-female form. What surely we can all agree on is that our Western societies have been the poorer for the decline of this latter form, and it is past time we restored its traditional centrality in our societies.