A few weeks ago, I was Googling same-sex marriage when I came across a piece by Yasmin Nair. In it she says: “Denying marriage to some is denying them their ability to love or to have their love affirmed? If your love depends upon the recognition of the state, your relationship is in greater trouble than you think. Poor people will somehow benefit from marriage by accessing healthcare through their partners? Poor people’s problems don’t arise from their inability to get married, and in a country without universal healthcare, marriage only compounds your poverty.”
According to her and others who agree with her, marriage equality is a cause that is shaped by an inegalitarian, heterosexist society. This raises a few questions. Would supposedly heteronormative goals make you homophobic? Am I homophobic because I am in favour of marriage equality? Is Nair homophobic because she is against marriage equality? What is it about arguments against same-sex marriage equality that make them fundamentally homophobic?
I think that these questions are interesting in the light of recent events in Ireland. In spite of my own convictions on marriage equality I’ve grown increasingly ill at ease with the tone of the debate, whereby those who take a stance against marriage equality are denounced as homophobes. The antagonism that has been generated in tandem with this trend is unnecessary and should be avoided.
Most of the views to which I object do not come from participants in public debate – I find them instead among the onlookers. Although these views are neither accepted by the majority of the population, according to polls, nor endorsed by many gay rights activists, they have gained enough traction to be worth addressing. In addition to this, there has also been a shift towards an ‘us and them’ dynamic in the mainstream media. Rory O’Neill has gone from saying that everyone’s a little homophobic but being homophobic doesn’t make you a bad person in his Nobel Call speech, to saying, in this newspaper, that same-sex marriage is something supported by “decent ordinary Irish people” and opposed by “ideologues”. He has called for a ban on the publishing and airing of anti-same sex marriage arguments. Una Mullally has said that anti-marriage equality rhetoric has been “directly responsible for physical and verbal attacks on gay people.”
Opposing gay marriage is seen by some as being tantamount to saying that gay people deserve less than straight people, or even to saying that they are lesser beings. One writer, Joe Muneely sums up what, I believe, many people think: “By standing against same-sex marriage, by standing to oppose the freedom to love whomever we choose – you are a hypocrite if you declare the want and need for equality as you restrict others from their right to a life with love.” In conversation people go further, saying that these arguments are inherently hateful, and that the people who believe them a wish that LGBTQ people didn’t exist.
But, in fact, we might find that there are legitimate questions to be debated. Since when has getting married been the only way to have a “life with love”? Is marriage a human or civil right? When people coming from a conservative perspective say “no” to both these questions, this is seen as a cover-up for homophobia. But the idea that marriage isn’t and shouldn’t be a right is perhaps more credible when it comes from the mouths of a radical minority in the gay-rights movement in the US.
Opposition to gay marriage within the LGBTQ activist community was common enough in the 70s and 80s. It has since become much rarer. Now, one of the main group advocates of this stance is a collective provocatively named “Against Equality”. Its founder, Ryan Conrad, objects to gay marriage for reasons similar to Nair’s: gay marriage just feeds inequality by reemphasizing the importance of marriage and its supposed superiority over other kinds of relationships, and further strengthening economic inequality and marriage privileges. He argues that LGBTQ people should be respected not because they are “just like every else”, but because it is possible to be different and to be equal anyway.
There are others who have similar views although they don’t necessarily oppose the marriage equality movement. Arlene Stein argues that gay marriage will “benefit some queer people, diminish many of those who cannot and do not wish to marry, and have a negligible impact upon others.” Lynne Huffner, who wrote in the Huffington Post that “the marriage-equality movement produces new categories of discrimination, sanctifying ‘good’ gays and lesbians and legitimizing some relationships at the expense of others”. According to her, “Those others – the new deviants, the new abnormal – have all but disappeared from our political landscape.” She uses the example of a single lesbian mother, two 60 year old gay men in an unromantic friendship who share a flat to make ends meet, and a young transgender teenager and asks how marriage equality is going to help them.
“Now, one of the main group advocates of this stance is a collective provocatively named “Against Equality”. Its founder, Ryan Conrad, objects to gay marriage for reasons similar to Nair’s: gay marriage just feeds inequality by reemphasizing the importance of marriage and its supposed superiority over other kinds of relationships, and further strengthening economic inequality and marriage privileges”
Arguments like these have already been briefly acknowledged by Rory O’Neill on BBC World’s ‘Have Your Say’ when he said that people who are against gay marriage are homophobic but not people who are against marriage. The group of people I have been discussing definitely fall into the latter category. Their arguments are different in most respects from those being discussed in Ireland today. But there is, perhaps, one common point: that marriage shouldn’t necessarily be a right, and that it is not a prerequisite for respect. These critiques highlight the conflation of respect and equality with having access to marriage, and remind us that it is possible to believe in ‘different and but equal’ arguments without being insane. If the two really aren’t one and the same, then it is not incoherent to be against same-sex marriage and be in favour of gay people and gay rights. This gives some credence to the claim that those advocating against same-sex marriage are not trying to deny gay people human rights, and that there are other ways of bringing equality for LGBTQ people that wouldn’t involve marriage.
It is surely therefore possible to be fully in favour of LGBTQ people, their sexuality and their love for their partners without being in favour of same-sex marriage. Shouldn’t we consider individual arguments rather than asserting that a conclusion necessarily stems from dark and dubious motives? Yet, among some people, the general consensus seems to be that it isn’t. At best you are a good person being influenced by hateful ideas, or someone protecting institutions that are fundamentally unequal purely because of an unconscious prejudice.
This could end up creating an ‘us versus the homophobes’ scenario, which I think is harmful. Anyone can be LGBTQ; anyone can be ‘one of us’ and be ‘their’ friend, ‘their’ neighbour. These relationships shouldn’t have to be sacrificed if there is another way of doing things. Isn’t it important to emphasise to a young gay man whose parents are against gay marriage that they do not have this stance because who he is and what he does ‘makes them uncomfortable’? It is possible to avoid this and still say that they are wrong. Then why don’t we do that instead? Isn’t the best response to engage with other people’s arguments? If people who oppose same-sex marriage are manoeuvred into a defensive position, they are less likely to change their minds. Once it has been decided by your opponents that you are directly responsible for gay people being beaten up on the streets, you are less likely to remain in dialogue with them. Many of the people saying that anti-same-sex marriage advocates should admit their mistakes are also saying that they should realise that they are homophobic, opposed gay people’s right to love and the very existence of LGBTQ people. Many of the accused know that this is not true, and these accusations will only make them less likely to doubt their views or take warmly to organisations such as LGBT Noise.
If we are worried about allowing institutions like the Iona institute to access the media because they might be given too much control over it, then surely the best response is to make sure that marriage equality advocates get equal amounts of access to the media, rather than try to take the platform away from them. Rather than condemn their views as groundless, it would surely be better to really argue against these views, to show that gender doesn’t play a particularly important a role in parenting, and that surrogacy and artificial fertility methods are different issues from gay marriage.
As I see it, the debate on marriage equality could go one of three ways. Same-sex marriage could remain illegal because of a majority vote against it, it could be legalised as a result of a campaign that maintains that people who disagree with us are homophobic, or marriage equality campaigners could ditch that tactic altogether and simply try to explain why they are right and change minds.
If there is actually a possibility that the same-sex marriage referendum will not pass, engaging with people’s arguments and taking them in good faith is really the best way forwards. In this case, changing minds would be a necessity. In either of the two latter scenarios, it will be passed and LGBTQ couples will be able to marry. Shouldn’t we opt for the one that does not hurt people unnecessarily?