Comment: Marriage equality is the mark of a civilised society
Writing for PinkNews.co.uk, Adrian Tippetts makes an open plea to members of the House of Lords to support the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill in next week’s second reading debate.
My Lords, Ladies,
Ahead of the vote on the same-sex marriage bill, I would like to explain why supporting the right of gay people to marry is the fair and just thing to do. I also want to explain why opposition to this is illogical, does not reflect the reality of relationships, is selectively discriminatory and thus morally wrong.
You may ask, why all the fuss about marriage? Don’t gay people have civil partnerships that offer almost all of the same rights? They don’t, but even if they did, it would still be demeaning for the law to discriminate, even if civil partnerships were legally on a par with marriages. Enforcing a different legal name for the arrangements of gay and straight people is segregation, which has harmful consequences.
Legal segregation tells society that it’s alright to treat LGBT people differently simply because of who they are. A large proportion of gay people learn to be treated as outsiders and outcasts, rejected and abused by families, bullied at school and in the workplace, vilified by church leaders, and all too regularly, subject to violent assault. We should be breaking these prejudices, not shoring them up.
Segregation harms in a most personal way, too, by making LGBT people feel different. When schools teach about marriage and civil partnership they are reinforcing a feeling of difference among LGBT children. Marriage, off limits to gay people, is seen as a ‘gold standard’ relationship, elevating heterosexuality and thus straight people as ‘ideal’. It encourages LGBT people to feel inferior and ashamed for not meeting the ideal. The testimonies of people like rugby star Gareth Thomas show how feeling set apart from the rest has ruinous consequences that last well into adulthood.
Heterosexuality is not an ideal because it cannot be aspired to: our sexual orientation is part of our nature. A just law, however, would recognise that there is something we can all aspire to, whether gay or straight. Loving relationships are one of life’s great aspirations and lie at the heart of what makes a good life. We show how much loved ones and friends mean to us by celebrating and encouraging their relationships. That encouragement, in turn, strengthens bonds further.
Who is harmed by the love of others?
Many opponents excuse banning gay people from marrying because they want to ‘protect the definition of marriage as a man and a woman’. But from what, or from whom, is marriage being protected? The mere extension of existing marriage rights to a small minority will have no effect on the status of millions of marriages of straight couples across the nation. As noted by the Dean of Worcester in January, we aren’t entering an institution; we are making a commitment to one person, we hope, for life. It is thus inaccurate for straight couples to describe the change in law as a ‘redefinition’ of their marriage.
The meaning of marriage has changed over the centuries. Today, we marry the person of our own choosing, on equal terms, for love alone, and society is far better for that reason. We should be thankful marriage has changed in definition, from the days when all the wife’s possessions were legally transferred to the husband, or when services could be solemnised only by the Church of England. Marriage is neither the preserve of the church nor the religious.
Love is all you need
Every child should know that he or she can fall in love, and that the joy, affection and commitment that comes with it is equally worthy and authentic. Commentators who claim there is more to marriage than love owe some explanation to their spouses, as to why they proposed in the first place. Would you still have loved and married your spouse if that person had turned out to be infertile, for example?
The Daily Telegraph’s Charles Moore says that because same-sex couples can never produce children, their domestic arrangements make no difference to the human future and therefore they should be excluded from the institution of marriage. Don’t children ‘exist because of men and women’?
This is arbitrary discrimination because we don’t deny this grand institution to the infertile or to parents of adopted children. In any case, civilisation’s success is not just due to the ability of people to produce new generations. Society flourishes because of the way we connect and cooperate with each other. We depend on our neighbours, colleagues, team-mates, customers, suppliers, for help and support on all kinds of levels. Sometimes we are called to help strangers in emergencies. One extreme example was the case of the young children rescued from a house fire in Birmingham. Would they ‘exist’ today, were it not for the bravery of the gay couple next door? Don’t read this as a plea to make an exception for courage: the point is, we would probably all do our best to help our neighbour if we were in those shoes. Gay couples, with or without children, too contribute to the education system and welfare state through their taxes and dote on, support, teach, inspire and care for their cousins, nieces and nephews like anyone else.
And gay people do have children anyway. There are thousands of stable families headed by same-sex couples where well-adjusted children are being nurtured in loving supportive environments (here is just one example). Some of these children would never have existed were it not for the stable relationship in the first place. If you then say that such a family unit is not ideal because same-sex couples can never both be their biological parents, then you do a grave injustice to the integrity of all families with adopted children. The fact that the children see this couple as loving parents and their own family as equal to any other family unit is all that matters. Allowing same-sex couples to marry strengthens families.
Some claim that same-sex marriage will cause a major upheaval of society and lead to a wave of persecution against religious people. There is no evidence for this, and plenty of evidence to the contrary. Same-sex marriage has been legal in several countries without any evidence of any such ‘persecution’. In Belgium or the Netherlands, 12 years on, life goes on as before. Nothing has changed, apart from the fact that a small minority of people are given their due recognition. Churches still continue to teach and conduct marriages according to their beliefs, just as before.
Some MPs feel uneasy about allowing marriage to gay people because of the ‘offence’ it will cause to religious people. But the majority of religious people in this country find that allowing equal rights to LGBT people is the moral, just thing to do. Legally enforcing one religious interpretation would only deny religious freedom and attacking conscience of liberal faiths. Who has the right to say who is more in tune with the mind of God on this issue?
Opponents to equality at least have satisfaction of knowing that no gay people are being married in the eyes of their god. Churches except our established one have the right to make their own rules, to opt in and opt out. The simple challenge to anyone who might sue, to determine God’s mind on whom we might sleep with. Equally, it is only fair that the people have freedom from the beliefs of others too.
One law for all is always a priority
You may think that extending marriage to gay couples shouldn’t have gone ahead because “we have other priorities” and because “we should be focusing on the economy”. This is curious, because the very people making this argument have spent thousands on media campaigns, leafleting campaigns, briefings and conferences to get this very message across. But the principle at stake here is is a big priority: that of equality under the law, and of there being one law for all.
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Opponents say allowing gay people to marry is ‘untraditional’. Quite the contrary: ensuring that minority groups receive equal protection and rights under the law is a fine example of strengthening our democratic tradition. Britain is rightly regarded as the cradle of modern democracy. Ever since Magna Carta, through the struggle for freedom of conscience, fair representation, women’s suffrage and equal civil rights, brave thinkers and campaigners have paid dearly to make this country the beacon of democracy that other nations look up to. John Stuart Mill reminds us that the highest measure of civilised society is how we treat minorities and enable the pursuit of personal interests. LGBT people are such a minority.
If the overwhelming evidence shows that same-sex couples are just as capable of love and commitment, and just as capable of providing stable parental homes as straight couples, then opinions of others cannot count. I urge you to vote ‘Aye’ of course, with the warning that you can no more vote on the authenticity and value of LGBT relationships than you can vote on the age of the Earth.
It was sad that some were pushing for a referendum on marriage equality. They pointed to the large numbers of signatories opposing marriage as a reason to deny equality. But this is far removed from democracy in a civilised society. I suspect you, like I, are rightly appalled at the treatment of Christians, whose freedom to assemble and worship is severely restricted by some Middle Eastern dictatorships. We are appalled when protections previously afforded to religious minorities are erased from a new constitution, validated by a simple majority vote. Here in Britain, we have an opportunity to send a message that voting against the rights of minorities, whether racial, religious or sexual, is not democracy but the rule of the mob.
Supporting the right of gay people to have full equality under the law, including equal recognition of relationships, then, is very much the traditional thing to do: it is in the tradition of decency, fair play and democracy in its truest sense.
When you vote, you will be stating whether LGBT people should be treated differently and separately because of who they are and whom they love. You and your fellow peers will be choosing between inclusion, acceptance and integration on one hand, and exclusion, separation and segregation on the other. The law as it stands effectively states that no gay relationship, no matter how loving, supportive, stable, faithful or committed can match the standard of a heterosexual relationship, however abusive, adulterous, deceitful, dysfunctional or short-lived. Did we even need a consultation to debate this?
Adrian Tippetts is a freelance journalist, human rights campaigner and PR consultant specialising in the graphics industry.
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