The Marriage Equality Debate

Emma Heyn and Ryan Connolly argue for either side of the same-sex marriage debate. 

Pro: Emma Heyn

he Student’s Union has announced plans to hold a referendum concerning whether or not it should have a long term policy position on same-sex marriage. This referendum will give us a clear indication of which way the student body leans on the issue, and it will be a helpful aid in the creation of new student policies. So should we say yay or nay to same sex marriage?

On the 19th of August 2013, the New Zealand parliament passed a bill legalising gay marriage. The news reports of this event were some of the most heartwarming I have seen in a long time. The bill was passed with applause, and all the members of parliament stood up to sing a Maori love song called “Pokarekare Ana”.

From what I can see, gay marriage has not yet brought down the Southern Pacific economy, affected the marriages of any straight couples in New Zealand, or caused families to break down due to the disintegration of family values. In fact, I believe that this development has been a glimmer of good news amid a period in our history which has been clouded by economic decline and political unrest.

So why are people opposing it?

One of the most common arguments used against gay marriage is the claim that it diminishes and devalues traditional matrimony and family life. But here’s the thing: we’ve never had “traditional marriages”, at least, not in the way you would think of them.

For instance, the historian Diarmaid MacCulloch has pointed out that in the 14th century a marriage consisted of two people making a verbal agreement to be committed to each other. All that was needed was for both parties to say: “I marry you.” That was it. Every cut and trimming that we currently associate with traditional marriage; white dresses, vows, cakes and witnesses, were all progressive movements in their own right, which developed due to social, political and economic changes.

Marriage has evolved dramatically in the past one hundred years, and continues to do so. Only sixty years ago, interracial marriage was illegal in most parts of the world. Many of the arguments used to justify their illegality,such as reference to the Bible and other religious texts, are currently being employed against gay marriage. Then as now, there existed the idea that these marriages would be a major disruption to traditional values, and would create family units that would ultimately damage the children inside them.

But gay marriage is not exactly a new development. Believe it or not, many societies have had forms of gay marriage long before this was a hotly debated issue. James Neill’s book “The Origins and Role of Same-sex Relations in Human Societies” explains that the ancient Greeks, Romans, and many Mesopotamian cultures contain frequently documented cases of same-sex unions.

The Native Americans had a form of gay marriage called “two souls” which was a highly esteemed form of coupling. In many tribes, individuals who entered into same-sex relationships were considered holy and treated with utmost respect and acceptance. Pirates even had a system which meant that in the event of the death of a man in a same sex relationship, all of his possessions would be given to his partner along with a basic form of health insurance.

Award-winning author and video blogger John Green has said: “The truth is, marriages are intensely personal. They are defined not by courts or by votes but by the people that live inside of them. That’s traditional marriage: people making a daily, lifelong commitment. We can’t make gay marriage illegal because gay marriage is already happening. It has been happening in fact for as long as human beings have been pledging themselves to each other.”

Those who oppose same sex marriage also raise the “issue” of adoption by homosexual couples. As I said above, history has shown us plenty of examples where, due to religious, racial, and now gender bias, certain combinations of persons in a marriage were considered substandard and even harmful to the children involved. Many of these family units are now accepted in society without the bat of an eyelid.

No-one can deny that adoption is a long, arduous process, and that every case has to be reviewed by multiple personnel before a child is given a new home. With both straight and gay couples now hoping to adopt, they have to be carefully selected with the child’s best interest in mind. I’ve never heard of a kid saying: “Yes, I would much rather bounce around various foster homes for the rest of my life than have a loving and stable family life.”

Is same-sex marriage grounds to deny children entry into loving and caring homes? Should we rally against single parents too? Or families that have been through multiple marriages? There are plenty of examples of unconventional families where children have grown up safe, happy and healthy.

Ultimately, gay marriage does not affect the family life or values of others. It only affects the people inside those immediate family units. As my favourite comedian Tina Fey once said: “Gay people don’t actually try to convert people. That’s Jehovah’s Witnesses you’re thinking of.”

Either we must advance the cause of tolerance, or we must make an attempt to hold on to arbitrary traditional values, no matter the cost.  We must either move forward or backward, and history has never favoured the latter. It is often said that around ten per cent of any given population is gay. Gay people are all around us, proving their inherent right to dignity and equal rights with every breath.  We all know people who are gay.

Homosexuality is not a cultural choice but a biological fact, and we don’t make the situation any easier for that ten per cent by denying them the rights of the other 90 per cent. I have no doubt that the day will come where gay marriage is legal  worldwide. But will we be able to tell our children that we were part of the generation that instigated it, or part of the generation that held us back?

Anti: Ryan Connolly

uestion: What do that most august of institutions, the Supreme Court of the United States, and hip hop legends Macklemore and Ryan Lewis have in common?

Answer: They both think I’m a bigot for opposing same-sex marriage.

Earlier this year, when the US Supreme Court struck down the Defence of Marriage Act, which outlawed same-sex marriage (or SSM) at a federal level, Justice Anthony Kennedy made the assumption  in his majority opinion that the Act was motivated by ‘bare…desire to harm a politically unpopular group’ and ‘improper animus’. Meanwhile, Macklemore’s latest single, ‘Same Love,’ which champions the cause of SSM, attacks those who ‘preach hate at the service.’ The song never tackles arguments against SSM, it merely asserts hatred on the part of SSM opponents.

Opponents of same-sex marriage are often characterised as bigots and homophobes acting in bad faith. Is this a fair assessment? Or can a logical, rational case be made against SSM?

First of all, what is marriage and why is it a legal institution? We can find our answer in the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, where it states in Article 16: ‘Men and women… have the right to marry and to found a family’ and that ‘the family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society.’ Take also Article 41.3 of Ireland’s Constitution: ‘The State pledges itself to guard… the institution of Marriage, upon which the Family is founded.’

In these documents, marriage is fundamentally conceived of as being the basis of the family, as it has been throughout history; this is why in both cases the two concepts are dealt with in the same article. The purpose of marriage is to provide a place within society where children can be raised by their biological mother and father. If marriage were merely a contract recognising the love between two people or their desire to live together, society would have no benefit in subsidising such an arrangement. The very reason we have such an institution is because society sees it as beneficial to support married couples in the rearing of children who are the future of the state.

Marriage has always been defined as being between a man and a woman because only a man and a woman together can produce a child. The authors of the above documents did not define marriage because to them this was an obvious fact. This is why the term ‘marriage equality’ is a misnomer; heterosexual couples alone are capable of producing children, even if a minority choose not to or are unable to; homosexual couples cannot. It is not inequality to treat two different situations differently.

If marriage as an institution is centred on the raising of children, this leads us to the question of parenting. Research collated by the US organisation Child Trends shows that ‘children do best when they grow up with both biological parents in a low-conflict marriage.’ But what about those children who for one reason or another do not live with both of their biological parents? Do they do as well with homosexual parents as they do with heterosexual ones?

It is difficult to draw conclusions from the research available. A study by Professor Mark Regnerus of the  University of Texas drew negative conclusions about same-sex parenting, although it has been criticised for its relatively small sample sizes (about 3,000 adults) and his use of a marketing company to select samples. However, although numerous studies disagree with Regnerus’ result, researchers at the US National Institutes of Health admit that many of those surveys have flawed selection processes and all have difficulty finding very broad samples (they sample a mean of 39 children).  A further problem is that legalised SSM is a relatively new phenomenon, only beginning in 2001 with the Netherlands and most recently with New Zealand this year, making it difficult to draw long-term conclusions.

But even if a conclusion cannot be drawn yet from the available research, an argument can still be made for children to be raised by a man and a woman. Today in our culture we campaign for equal representation of men and women in politics, business and society as a whole. The argument goes that more women are required in positions of influence in order to represent themselves and their own unique interests and concerns. In order to have a balanced, fair society we need to have the representation of both sexes at the highest levels.

But if we need representation of both genders within government and the rest of society, surely the representation of both genders is needed within the context of marriage too, since it is the fundamental unit of society? In more simple terms, children need a father and a mother, somebody who can act as a role model to them of both men and women as they grow up and develop.

This is not to say that gay men cannot be good fathers or that lesbians cannot be good mothers; no doubt they can. Rather it is to say that no man can be a mother; no woman can be a father. After all, if men and women do not bring something unique to parenting, family or marriage, then how can we say they each bring something unique into politics, business, science or any other sphere of influence?

Other arguments against SSM include those of the Manif pour Tous organisation, which this year held demonstrations of hundreds of thousands of people against the new SSM law in France. The main organisers of this diverse coalition argue that the law demeans fatherhood and motherhood, which many people identify with, by eliminating such terms from the law and replacing them with ‘parent,’ and that children adopted by same-sex couples will be denied access to their biological father or mother.  Some of the other groups have different reasons for opposition, such as gay activists Plus Gay Sans Marriage who believe that SSM is a heteronormative institution that would damage gay subculture.

Another vocal opponent of SSM is self-avowed Marxist atheist Brendan O’Neill, editor of Spiked magazine, who opposes SSM on the basis that it gives the government too much control over the definition of marriage and societal institutions such as the family.

Finally, I wish to return to the accusation of bigotry made against SSM opponents. To be honest, labelling somebody a bigot without engaging with them is a facile, lazy argument, designed to shut down discussion. Is somebody who disagrees with the Catholic Church necessarily sectarian? Is somebody who disagrees with positive discrimination in the workplace necessarily racist? Then why does articulating arguments against SSM make one a bigot? Name-calling only serves to silence genuine debate.

I know from personal experience as a practicing Catholic that the accusation of bigotry has often been thrown at my religion without any effort to engage with the arguments presented. Yet the Church’s position on SSM is not about hatred but rather a different conception of sexuality, marriage and family and the belief that all people, gay or straight, can find happiness and peace by living out that view (an argument articulated quite well from by Steve Gershom, a gay Catholic who blogs at ‘Catholic, Gay and Doing Fine’).  I can understand somebody disagreeing with that; but to cry bigotry is to evade genuine debate.