The first time I was married was because of Australia’s immigration rules. I had fallen in love while working as a waiter on the Greek island of Spetses in 1987. I told the authorities that my Austrian girlfriend was my fiancé in the naïve hope that a visa would be issued faster. The visa condition was that we marry within three months after her arrival or face large penalties. We had a civil marriage and separated four years later.
Ten years later I fell in love and I still am. I was married in Melbourne’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Saint Pat’s is my Spanish-Australian wife’s family church and was ideal for her wedding train, and had the best acoustics for the Flamenco ensemble. A Spanish wedding in a Catholic cathedral, not Catedral de Santa María de la Sede, but excellent nonetheless. The party that followed was Dionysian – we prayed to the more human and lascivious pre-Judaic – Christian – Muslim gods.
As a divorcee and non-Catholic, I had to be interviewed by the Church. The young priest interviewing me apologised after I gave him an historic account of how Catholic Rome financed Crusaders to sack the citadel of Christianity, Constantinople in 1204.
Being able to marry in a Catholic cathedral as a non-Catholic divorcee means that traditions do change. Those who campaign for the NO vote in the forthcoming referendum, or survey, on marriage equality, lay claim to the ancient tradition of marriage. Most of the clergy in the Greek Orthodox Church, like their peers in Catholic, Judaic and Muslim and other faiths, are also calling for a NO vote.
The Muslim communities’ representatives seem less vocal than their Christian peers on the referendum in fear of alienating the left in their trials against bigotry. Ali Kadri, the spokesman for the Islamic Council of Queensland said on the ABC’s The Drum “We are afraid if we come out with our opinion then the left may abandon us for going against their view and we can’t be friendly with the conservatives because they have been bashing us for 15, 20 years every chance they get … and that includes some Christian sects as well.”
The Greeks and Romans had complex notions of sex and marriage.
We love tradition, yet not all traditions are great. Let’s reflect on the pre Judeo-Christian-Muslim traditions of my Hellenic culture. James Davidson in The Guardian commenting on Greek homosexuality writes: “The Romans certainly noticed what they called the “Greek custom”, which they blamed on too much exercising with not enough clothes on.”
Same sex practices and unions in Ancient Greece were not restricted to pedagogic relations between older men and adolescent boys, epheboi, ἔφηβοi, of training age, or the type of sex that Plato considered virtuous. This pedagogic view of homosexuality has been contested. Men and women, citizens, and non-citizens, and slaves were engaged in same sex relationships, regardless of androcentric Hellenic culture. Sex was also very public.
Saint Paul freaked out in Corinth, Greece’s most morally out-there city. He wrote in Letters to the Corinthians: “The Corinthians claim that they are free to do anything. Sexual needs, they argue, are like hunger: they must be satisfied. (These ideas came from the appalling immorality in which they were living.)… Greek men were expected to marry and have offspring but that did not extend to monogamy.” 1 Corinthians 6:12-20.
Andrew Hastie, the federal Member for Canning and a No campaigner is smart in suggesting that, “Romans and Greeks, who had a flourishing gay culture” and “always recognised marriage as inherently linked to the continuation of the family and strength of the state.”
However Greeks and Romans did not have a ‘gay culture’(whatever that means). They had complex notions of sex and marriage. Marriage law was jam-packed with legal, regional and religious intricacies that seem alien to most of us in the west.
It was not uncommon to marry one of your in-laws or for a married man to have a legally recognised concubine. The status of a child born to a free citizen father and slave was determined by the father. These laws exposed inherent clashes between Proto-Hellenic matriarchy and Mycenaean and Dorian patriarchy. Patriarchy won.
Historian and expert on the Roman Empire, Mary Beard, blames the Greeks and Romans for officially telling women to “shut up” publicly. She uses a great example in Homer’s Odyssey where the “wet behind the ears” teen son of Odysseus, Telemachus, tells his middle-aged mother to shut up as a beginning of male dominated literature and public speaking. Sorry.
Women could only speak publicly as victims, or as defenders of virtue, family, home and state. Beard writes of the continuation of this tradition, “Women who claim a public voice get treated as freakish androgynes, like Maesia who defended herself in the Forum.”
There is a dearth of material by and about women from Ancient Greece and Rome. The burning of Alexandria’s Great Library by the Christians around 400CE doesn’t help either. We know that women such as hetaira, ἑταῖραι, independent prostitutes, held high social status, ran businesses and owned property. Sappho, the poet aristocrat from the island of Lesbos, is renowned for her odes to lesbian love. We know that in Ancient Greece and Rome sexuality, marriage and union were fluid.
Spartan women could also have sex with whomever they wanted, male or female, in and out of wedlock.
Jean-Pierre Vernant, in Myth and Society in Ancient Greece, reveals various types of unions which the democratic city attempted to give privileged status to, but “did not succeed” in giving it a “defined legal character”. There were also other diverse types of union whose status varied “according to the historical circumstances.” He emphasises the notion of war ending in marriage and marriage seeding war. Conflict and harmony between men and women, youth and adults, youth and youth and so on was at the centre of Greek thought and was animated in marriage rituals, festivals, religious ceremonies, debates, sporting competitions and theatre.
Paul Cartledge the authority on Sparta’s ancient warrior society in Sparta: An Epic History points to Spartan women training for war and not being as marginalised as their peers in Athens. Spartan women could also have sex with whomever they wanted, male or female, in and out of wedlock.
Spartan men spent their lives in military mess and had male lovers. They had female spouses for legal and social reasons. Spartan corps would recite poetry, sing and oil each other’s bodies and braid their long hair the night before combat.
They danced in formation and sung into battle. Their enemies saw them as effete until they felt Spartan steel. Romans employed Hellene hoplites that fought as paired male lovers as no one would leave his lover to die on the battlefield. We are all aware of mythical Achilles’ lover Patroclus as well as the very real Alexander’s lover, Hephaestion. Yet, our common and current definitions of homosexuality, heterosexuality, or bisexuality do not fit Ancient Greece or Rome.
The Greek Orthodox Archdiocese, like other religious authorities emphasise ancient traditions in their campaigning against marriage equality for the upcoming referendum.
Marriage is the very foundation of a family, which in turn is the foundation of society itself; confusing the institution of marriage with same-sex unions will have serious consequences for religious freedom and implications for freedom of conscience; children should be afforded every opportunity to start life, grow and develop with both their biological parents, i.e. their mother and father.
As a youth worker in the ’80s I saw first hand how dysfunctional heterosexual married parents impacted on their biological children’s development. The argument that a heterosexual union is naturally better in raising children just does not hold. NO campaigners, like the Orthodox Archdiocese avoid the fact that same-sex couples are often biological parents.
The religious negate the massive impact the extended immigrant family has on raising children. Many children were left behind to grandparents, unties and uncles, while their biological parents secured a foothold in Australia. In the early 1970s my cousins and I spent endless hours being cared for by our grandparents while the parents worked. Children spend lots of time with grandparents now, or are in childcare as parents, hetero or same-sex, are forced to work.
Religion is plastic. In the end, no religious authority will be forced to marry anyone they do not want to.
Neither love nor marriage requires authentication from religious authorities. However, marriage does require the state’s validation. Given we live in a secular society we have thus agreed on the separation of religion from the state. This tradition was enshrined with the reinvention of Greco-Roman ideals many centuries ago in the west.
The contract between citizen and state is the primary issue in the marriage equality referendum. The Greek Orthodox Church, an institution that has done good and bad, may not want to bless the union of same sex couple and that’s fine. It has blessed foreign powers like the Ottomans who brought an end to Greek life in Asia Minor and colonised Greece for 400 years, it has blessed a motley array of Greek dictators and faux (German) Greek royals. At the same time, some senior Greek clergy stood forthrightly against the Nazis in support of Greece’s Jews in WWII and some fought side by side with partisans. Religion is plastic. In the end, no religious authority will be forced to marry anyone they do not want to.
However, the referendum has created unnecessary polarisation. Many non-Anglo communities face deep religious and traditional impediments to voting YES, regardless of what their personal values maybe. Families with LGBTIQ children are being put to the test pointlessly. This is stupid and cruel.
In Switzerland where men began voting in 1292, women only got the vote in 1971. The 1959 referendum rejected women’s suffrage by a majority of 67 per cent. Another Swiss referendum in 2009 banned the construction of new Minarets for mosques. Another in 2014 restricted migration especially from non-EU and western nations, possibly contravening the ‘free movement of people accord’ with the EU block.
If we relied on referenda we would not have: pre-war and post-war migration from Eastern and Southern Eastern Europe; no-fault divorce, Aboriginal land rights, women’s rights, gay and lesbian rights, Asian, Arabic or African migration. There would be no multicultural policy, no racial vilification act, no universal health cover, no free(ish) universities, and we would still be riding the sheep’s back. Not all reforms are acceptable to all, that’s democracy.
Greek-Australians who angst over marriage equality should re-examine some of their Hellenic traditions, not just stick to the Greek Orthodox line. Hellenes made same-sex love righteous. Eros has a virtue; check out Plato’s Symposium. Ancient Greek philosophers, historians, mathematicians, doctors, scientists, leaders, artists and warriors saw sex in all its diversity, as a natural part of human society.
I respect many who might vote NO, though I do not agree with them. I do not respect those on the NO side who lie about Safe Schools or create unfounded fear of restrictions to religious freedom. I support the YES vote but I am annoyed by those who show a lack of judgement and berate or humiliate NO voters and campaigners. It’s not a winning strategy.
I will vote for the tradition that re-affirms the separation of faith and state. Citizens in democracy should be free to celebrate and validate their union. The ancient Hellenic social contract allows us to convene freely, discuss in the agora, and make changes to our laws and traditions that reflect our times
Marriage may be an ancient ritual whose object is to celebrate the union of two people. It is also a feast for kin and friends. It is an excuse for a wedding party, for the flow of wine, music and song and for all to dance. It’s about fine new clothes it’s about rekindling old romance and meeting first loves. It’s about love. I will vote YES.