‘How precisely will same-sex marriage undermine the institution of marriage?’
Look up at the Canadian sky. It hasn’t fallen in. Neither has the South African sky, for that matter. Yet both countries have full equal marriage rights for same-sex couples. They are part of a growing list of countries which are legislating on this important human rights issue.
In Ireland, marriage equality will be before the Constitutional Convention next weekend and the administrators of the convention have been taken aback by the response compared to other issues being debated. Citizens have taken up the call to feed into the debate at a rate of three to one in favour of equal marriage legislation.
This reflects figures which the group Marriage Equality found in a Millward Brown (Lansdowne) poll in September 2012. It found that 72 per cent of people believe that “denying civil marriage to same-sex couples is a form of discrimination”.
The voices opposed to this onward march are predictable enough: from the Catholic bishops and the Knights of St Columbanus to evangelical churches. It paints a tragic picture of spirituality and faith in the 21st century where those claiming to be Christians garner their considerable forces against a minority.
The Knights of St Columbanus have become particularly active recently. According to accounts returned to the US Internal Revenue Service, between 2005 and 2012 they’ve donated an extraordinary$6.25 million to anti-marriage-equality campaigns. Are those who raise funds for them aware their money is being spent in this way?
For Irish Christians still reeling from the monumental ‘bad confession’ of clerical child abuse, it is difficult to accept the Church’s moral lead on same-sex marriage. Many wonder why all the effort put into these campaigns is not directed at more pressing issues of social justice such as global hunger or child poverty. Drawing the viewfinder back, what many see is a conglomerate of churches making themselves less popular and less meaningful to a younger generation, contributing to their own demise and perpetuating intolerance in the guise of faith.
One of the greatest concerns of those opposed to marriage equality is a rather woolly idea that same-sex marriage will in some way ‘undermine’ heterosexual marriage. Ignoring the successful institutions in the likes of Canada and South Africa, they use theory and theology instead of giving practical examples. How precisely, in concrete terms, will same-sex marriage undermine the institution of marriage? Will we throw better dinner parties? Will our gardens look better than yours? Will our flower arranging for the church look better? Even at the most ordinary level, I would have thought that by extending membership of a club it makes it stronger.
The nub of the issue in Ireland is children. Though there are more than 160 differences between marriage and civil partnership, it is the exclusion of children which is creating some of the worst hardship. The legislation does not recognise the status of children of same-sex couples. This has a practical daily impact: emergency calls from school cannot be officially responded to by the non-biological mother or father; medical emergency decisions can only be made by the birth-mother who may not even be in the country at the time of an emergency.
There are other problems, from exclusion from social security to university costs. It is tough enough for any family to save up for their children’s university education, but at least the children of heterosexual couples will not have to declare to Revenue the fees paid by a non-biological parent as a gift and then pay tax on it.
End-of-life experiences have presented one of the most tragic stories reported to Marriage Equality in the Voices of Children Report (the report documents the experiences of young people growing up in Ireland with lesbian parents). The child of a lesbian couple was refused access to her terminally ill mother. The family had disapproved of the relationship and prevented the child from saying her final goodbye.
It is not such a mystery to understand why legislators excluded children. There is a strongly held and unstated belief that children are not safe with gay people and gay men in particular; that if a man is gay he is also a potential paedophile. The reality is that the two are mutually exclusive. Then there is the myth that same-sex parents can ‘turn’ a child gay (so why amn’t I straight?). So virulent is this jumble of false beliefs that it ended up framing civil partnership legislation and ignored the children of same-sex parents.
The attitude of legislators to marriage equality also needs to be seen in a wider context of the heterosexual population’s views of children and lesbian and gay citizens. In the same way that toddlers are given information about Mummy’s pregnancy in an age-appropriate way – Daddy gave Mummy a special hug and they made a baby – gay relationships need to be normalised. My goddaughter asked at the age of four who my girlfriend was. Her mother said I didn’t have girlfriends, that I had boyfriends. That was it. No biggie. Other friends have assiduously avoided the issue and are now faced with a big ‘reveal’. Implicit in this is the creation of ‘difference’, a setting apart of the gay individual. It is this atmosphere which has helped create segregated legislation such as civil partnership.
Needless to say, many of these legislators were only recently struggling with the idea that they knew any gay people at all, let alone the idea of gay marriage. Civil partnership legislation seems to run somewhat ahead of the intellectual capacity of some TDs, who regularly said to Marriage Equality volunteers that they’d never met a gay person before. Oh yes you have. They just didn’t say it to you.
Indeed, many lesbian and gay people are working for ministers and senior officials across government but keep their mouths shut in the face of the archaic attitudes their bosses unwittingly reveal. No wonder the legislation pulled its punches despite the hard work of organisations such as Glen and Marriage Equality.
Again and again, those opposed to positive legislation focus on the theoretical and theological, ignoring the practical. This is an age-old divide between a belief in legislation which reflects the will of the people and legislation which wishes to control people’s lives. Supporters of marriage equality seek legislation to manage the reality of life for hundreds of same-sex-headed households in need of legal protection. The other ignores the existence of these people and believes legislation will open the floodgates and create same-sex families.
The reality is they are already here and they will continue to form. If we are a nation that genuinely cares for its children, we should be extending the institution of marriage to protect all the children of the state – instead of the new form of illegitimacy which children of same-sex couples now face.
Ross Golden-Bannon is the restaurant critic of The Sunday Business Post and a board member of Marriage Equality. He is writing here in a personal capacity
This first appeared in The Sunday Business Post, 7 April 2013