Winning the fight for equality is a matter of principled leadership, argues Adrian Tippetts
Writing in the weekly British conservative magazine, The Spectator, Fraser Nelson lamented the gay marriage issue had ignited a ‘culture war’ in the UK.
He said the heated language and activism over LGBT rights, that have been part of the American political discourse for decades, have now being transported to the UK.
Fraser is right that liberal Britain is aghast at such discourse but unfair to blame equality proponents: a network of increasingly well-organized religious lobby groups have been very proactive and loud in their attempts to derail equality legislation for at least the last 20 years.
And Fraser is right that the marriage equality could and should have been done faster. But the inability to do so is symptomatic of an underlying incompetence of political leaders to fully understand or stand up for legal equality, fairness and personal liberty.
In France, president FranÃ§ois Hollande flip-flopped on whether mayors could opt out of officiating at civil ceremonies; in the Netherlands, LGBT campaigners are still fighting a revision of the constitution that still allows discrimination against ‘practising’ gay people. And just before Christmas the American House of Representatives debated amendments to a law that could legalize harassment of LGBT military personnel in the name of religious freedom.
The first lesson is that appeasing equality opponents is unethical and pleases no-one. Equality and liberty cannot be ethically negotiated and compromised: either you have it or you don’t.
Secondly, the opponents of marriage equality generally won’t be appeased anyway. In Britain, almost all the vociferous lobbyists have voted against an equal age of consent, adoption rights, civil partnerships and equality legislation.
The UK government thought it offered an olive branch in the form of a lengthy consultation, in order to listen to everyone’s views on marriage equality. It begged the question, why members of the general public should have a say in the validity of other’s relationships in the first place.
The consultation made the religious lobby feel duped when, after all the mobilization, the plans for marriage equality remained firmly on track. The ‘quadruple lock’ sop to traditionalists, banning dissenting Church of England and Wales priests from performing marriages for gay couples, angered the Anglicans and resurrected calls for separating church and state in the UK.
Instead the starting point should be recognizing that society is diverse, in taste, ambition and above all nature. Allowing individuals to pursue their own interests enables society to flourish. Because sexual orientation is diverse and can neither be changed nor learnt, it is not just irrelevant but dishonest to set the heterosexual relationship as an ideal standard. If the evidence tells us same-sex relationships are natural and a source of joy, love, stability and commitment, the opinion polls are of no concern.
Politicians need to be reminded of the purpose of legislation. The 19th century British philosopher John Stuart Mill stated the only justification for exercising power over others is to prevent harm to others. The Coalition For Marriage, a consortium of mainly religiously motivated individuals campaigning to deny same-sex couples the right to marry, claims gay marriage causes great harm to society. Leaving aside the ‘fags doom nations’ message only slightly repackaged by Scottish Catholic cardinal Keith O’Brien and the Pope, it is only fair that these claims are investigated.
They call for the ‘distinctive value’ of marriage as one man, one woman to be protected because they believe it’s best for bringing up children. But if they were consistent about the sanctity of marriage, or its significance as the means of procreation, they would be campaigning to deny this grand institution to the divorced, the adulterous, the infertile, or parents of adopted children.
Charles Moore in the Daily Telegraph counters this point: ‘Of course there are, in practice, many wonderful marriages without children, but if it were not for children, the institution of marriage would not be needed and would not exist.
‘Children exist because of men and women. Homosexuals may love one another just as much as anyone loves anyone else – and all disinterested love is a social good – but their domestic arrangements make no difference to the human future. Marriage is all about the human future. It is mankind’s main investment in it.’
Aside from the fact that people primarily marry for love, and marriage was about property and inheritance rights until very recently, even this is cherry-picking, excusing ‘unproductive’ marriages. Indeed, would it be appropriate for the parents of murderers and other serious criminals to be considered married? After all, don’t their children have a negative impact on society?
Moore ignores the thousands of stable families headed by same-sex couples where well-adjusted children are not merely existing, but flourishing in a loving supportive environments (here is a US video performance to make the point, based on a song from the Netherlands). Some of these children would not have existed were it not for the stable relationship in the first place.
But modern civilization’s success is due to the interconnected, cooperative nature of our society, which provides the best basis for this and future generations to flourish, not just exist. We depend on others for help and support, sometimes in emergencies. One extreme example was the case of young children rescued from a house fire in Birmingham, in the West Midlands of England, by their gay neighbors. Would they ‘exist’ today, were it not for the bravery of the gay couple next door? Gay couples too contribute to the education system and welfare state through their taxes. And they dote on, support, teach, inspire and care for their cousins, nieces and nephews like anyone else.
Relationships lie at the heart of what makes a good life. A loving relationship for many, is one of life’s greatest aspirations. It is demeaning for the law to discriminate, even in countries where civil partnerships or same-sex unions are legally on a par with marriages. Separate is not equal, and only encourages social prejudice.
The very arbitrary nature of the opposition to marriage equality makes it homophobic. The underlying premise states 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 really need months of consultation to determine whether this is true or not?
The anti-equality lobby is concerned that people who think gay relationships are a sin or inferior will lose their jobs, or even face prosecution for their beliefs. The law must uphold the principle of equal treatment under the law but safeguard the liberty to express opinion in a personal capacity.
But the same rules of expression do not apply in the captive environment of the classroom, where children are instructed under the authority of the teacher. Many faith schools do excellent work in teaching about inclusivity of minorities, sex and relationships. But a minority of faith schools, thanks to loopholes in equality legislation, cause a great deal of harm. To tell an LGBT child that a relationship outside of heterosexual marriage is sinful, and thus, that the only salvation is a loveless life of chastity is a cruel, perverse abuse of authority.
Roger Gale, Peter Bone and other uppity Conservative backbench Members of Parliament (MPs) in the UK claim same-sex marriage is being ‘foisted’ on them. How so? They have every freedom to go through life avoiding all contact with gay people if they wish; how the integrity or definition of their marriage will be affected is never explained.
If those relationships do not cause harm to others, it follows that LGBT people deserve the same treatment, privileges, opportunities and access to institutions as others; and protections, too. The polls should not matter, as voting on the rights of minorities, whether racial or sexual, amounts to mob rule. Sadly our leaders make scant reference to the principle of one law for all: the idea that everyone is equal under the law.
It happens that surveys show strong majority support for marriage equality in Britain. But the momentous shift in opinion is far more interesting. The most likely driver is that LGBT people feel empowered to come out, thus eliminating prejudices of friends, relatives and peers. The better people know and the more they learn about LGBT people and their relationships, the more support they show. It highlights another principle: to respect and protect the dignity and freedoms of people above beliefs, which should not be protected, because they can be based on ignorance.
And to those who lament the redefinition of the institution of marriage, Thomas Jefferson’s celebrated remarks apply: ‘I am not an advocate for frequent changes in laws and constitutions. But laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind.
‘As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths discovered and manners and opinions change, with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also to keep pace with the times.
‘We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him when a boy as civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors.’
Our society is growing up and it is time our institutions and laws adapted accordingly.