I live with my husband and son in Amsterdam. The Netherlands is the first country to extend marriage laws to include same-sex marriage. It's a commonly held belief -- not least by the Dutch -- that the Dutch are tolerant, and/or liberal. In my experience that's not true. The Dutch are pragmatic, and broadly humanist. The society prizes the right to the expression of opinion, and that opinion operates as what they call 'social control.'
Unlike, say, the United States, and certainly unlike Britain, there is a cultural emphasis on clarification of the negative. In Britain, friendship means you give your friends the benefit of the doubt. In The Netherlands it is your responsibility as a friend to voice the strength of your feeling about things that have interfered with your relationship: you leave them in no doubt.
However, if you don't care about someone or their issue, you don't voice an opinion. This is why the Dutch sometimes complain that theirs is becoming a society in which individuals are selfishly concerned only with themselves. The Dutch complain that the phrase 'I don't mind what you do,' has come to mean, 'I don't care what you do,' although in Dutch it reads the same.
The Netherlands is a startlingly secular country, even if the curse 'Godverdomme' ('Goddamn') is still offensive. In the sixties, the Dutch embraced progressive secularism to an extent that transformed a traditionally conservative, religious, rather inward-looking country. It became a modern, outward-facing internationalist society in which order and a degree of conformism are taken as requirements of stability, of the 'samenleving' (the 'living together-ness'). 'Do maar gewoon, dan doe je al gek genoeg' ('Act normal, because that's weird enough') is a common admonition.
In The Netherlands, the number of couples getting married has dramatically declined since the war, while at the same time the number of registered partnerships has risen. This is a country in which unmarried couples routinely refer to their partners as 'husband' or 'wife.' It might be possible to make the case that the extension of marriage rights to same-sex couples passed into law because nobody cares about marriage. And since the changes to the marriage law 12 years ago, the number of gay couples getting married is surprisingly low. My point is that marriage is in flux in The Netherlands, perhaps culturally in decline.
In my TEDx Amsterdam presentation on gay marriage, I pin political, social and psychological moments of my life onto time in order to chart the changes that I have lived through, and which have shaped my identity as a gay man, and therefore my experience of own life. I try to show how these influenced my decision to get married.
My husband and I got married because we love each other and wanted to celebrate that union.
But in my research, including several hours with a Methodist minister, and with homosexual and heterosexual friends, it became clear to me that the idea of exactly what marriage is, is increasingly personal. There seems to be very little consensus about what it does, and what appropriate motivations are to enter into it. I realized that our personal (romantic) reasons were not widely articulated, even if they were recognized in some way by most married couples I talked to.
We got married because we make a distinction between our love for each other as individuals, and the commitment which flows from that love on the one hand, and our commitment to the idea and the reality of us as a couple and the commitments which flow from that coupledom, on the other.
When I consider the significant relationships I had before I met my husband (very few, in a stream of one-nighters, as he likes to remind me), I have to acknowledge that in most cases I still feel a commitment to those few men, because I still love them to some degree. But I have no commitment to being with them.
Marriage is important to me because the ability to commit to another is a metaphor for my ability and the willingness to commit to others. If I love this man, and am able to commit to the idea of being with him, I must take seriously his commitments, and his intentions. Which is how I ended up a father.
There were political dimensions to the decision.
We wanted to be visible. We wanted to be on record as being not just married, but as homosexuals (by implication). The Dutch love statistics. We want society to know we are there. As a South African, I saw a regime disappear and be replaced by another, more benign one. I am under no illusion that the reverse might not happen -- even in modern Europe. When I was 14, in South Africa, I decided that when the time came in my twenties to be conscripted into the apartheid army, I would refuse, and ten years later I was deported. I am ensuring that I have to take a stand in the future, should it be required of me.
In the American fight for marriage equality, it seems common to mock the Right's understanding of the gay agenda by expressing our agenda as humorously mundane. I am not doing that. I don't want to claim that I am 'like' a heterosexual man (except biologically, and in some aspects of my socialization). I want to make it clear that I am married because I am changing the very concept of marriage to include mine. And I am using my marriage to go further.
It was the Flemish-Moroccan artist Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui who made me realise the degree to which homosexuality challenges all other aspects of my identity. Marriage equality is an elegant, provocative way of challenging nationality and its attendant rights, masculinity and its meanings, and the right to parenthood. In some countries, perhaps not mine, it challenges that bastion of oppression, organized religion.
We got married because our marriage asks questions, and these questions point the way to the next struggles on the road to liberation. And it has the virtue, to a lifelong pacifist, of doing it with love.