COLETTE BROWNE: There is no place for fear or prejudice over same-sex marriages

THE virulent opposition to same-sex marriage, when one strips away all of the extraneous religious ideology, is, at its core, a battle to protect the last bastion of legitimised discrimination.

In the UK, David Cameron’s support for same-sex marriage has riven his conservative base but he has countered criticism by saying he supports the measure precisely because he is a conservative and believes society benefits when couples, no matter what their sexual orientation, make a serious commitment to each other.

Intent on progressing with plans to legalise same-sex marriage, the Home Office recently published a consultation paper that stated the only remaining question was how the new law would be enacted and not whether it would happen.

In a characteristically understated attack, religious groups have claimed the very fabric of society is in danger of unravelling if the plans succeed and homosexual couples get to say, “I do”.

Britain’s most senior Catholic cleric, Cardinal Keith O’Brien, in a recent radio interview, had a good rummage around his repository of inflammatory metaphors before ultimately likening gay marriage to legalising slavery — prompting slack-jawed listeners to scratch their heads and wonder if he’d remembered to take his pills that morning Having ditched any pretence of preaching the virtues of loving thy neighbour as thyself, the cardinal said same-sex unions were the “thin end of the wedge” and would lead to the “further degeneration of society into immorality” while the godless countries that had already enthusiastically slid down the slippery slope, and into the fiery embrace of Sodom and Gomorrah, were “shaming themselves” by going against “natural law”.

Care to gingerly pick through the cardinal’s bile and invective, in a heroic effort to locate his point, and it quickly becomes apparent that he doesn’t really have one, other than, of course, he doesn’t seem to like the gays very much.

His thesis is that once same-sex marriage is allowed then the institution itself is immediately devalued and rendered worthless — implying that heterosexual couples are so insecure in their own relationships that the mere knowledge that somewhere, out there, homosexual couples are marrying serves as a disincentive for them to bother with the whole palaver and, instead, opt to continue to live in sin.

Calling Cameron’s plans “grotesque” and “madness“, the cardinal accused him of trying to “redefine reality” — a charge that one could, perhaps, take more seriously if it wasn’t coming from a high-ranking member of an organisation whose reality hasn’t been redefined since its core edicts were first etched in stone on a mountain top some 2,000 years ago.

Don’t tell the cardinal, but reality has already changed, he just hasn’t noticed it yet. Homosexuality is no longer illegal, or considered deviant, and some gay couples would very much like the state in which they live to afford them the same basic rights that it offers heterosexual couples and officially recognise the seriousness of their commitment to each other.

They don’t require a big church wedding, and won’t be getting one, but what they would like is the option of having a civil marriage ceremony that treats their relationships with the same level of respect and dignity afforded to heterosexual couples. Instead, the implicit attitude of the state is that gay couples emit some kind of virulent contagious toxicity that would somehow cause the immediate degradation of every single straight marriage in the country if they were allowed do anything as outrageous as tie the knot.

As if that wasn’t bad enough, they are also told that same-sex marriage would damage children — those brought up by gay couples and, indeed, the children of heterosexual couples that they’ve never even met. Truly, their awesome evil power knows no bounds.

There isn’t a single shred of evidence to support this slur but that doesn’t stop fire-and-brimstone conservatives from trotting it out at every available opportunity.

In California, where two gay couples this year successfully challenged the constitutionality of Proposition 8, that state’s ban on gay marriage, the vacuity of this argument was revealed when the state could not find a single expert witness to offer any evidence to support the notion that gay marriage was harmful, to children or anyone else.

“It’s very easy for people who want to deprive gay and lesbian citizens of the right to marry to make all sorts of claims in campaign literature, where they can’t be cross examined, but when they come into court, and they have to defend those opinions under oath and under cross examination, those opinions melt away.

“That’s what happened here. There simply wasn’t any evidence and there weren’t any empirical studies [to support their assertions]. It’s made up, it’s junk science and it’s easy to say that [in media] but the witness stand is a lonely place to lie,” explained David Boies, a lawyer representing the couples.

In fact, a dispassionate appraisal of the wealth of available scientific evidence, going back to the 1970s, can best be summed up by a 2002 American Academy of Paediatrics Committee report, which stated: “Children who grow up with one or two gay and/or lesbian parents fare as well in emotional, cognitive, social and sexual functioning as do children whose parents are heterosexual.

“Children’s optimal development seems to be influenced more by the nature of the relationships and interactions within the family unit than by the particular structural form it takes.”

So, despite the hysteria from Cardinal O’Brien — who seems much more exercised about gay marriage than he ever was about child abuse perpetrated, and covered up, by clergy — what matters most to children’s welfare is not the sexual orientation of their parents but their parenting abilities. That’s a simple fact.

In Ireland, the contentious issue is set to return to the headlines over the coming months as Senator Katherine Zappone and Dr Ann Louise Gilligan take their fight to have their Canadian marriage recognised in this country to the Supreme Court in June.

Their task is an onerous one as the High Court, in 2006, dismissed their case ruling that, even though marriage is not defined in the constitution as being between a man and a woman, it is commonly understood to mean just that and it was not willing to expand its meaning.

The judgment made particular reference to the special constitutional protection that exists for families but, in an era where the traditional model of the nuclear family no longer applies to an increasing number of people, is it equitable that some families are accorded a higher degree of protection than others? Is it right that a person’s sexuality, an arbitrary accident of birth, continues to be used as the justification for codified bigotry? The Irish people don’t seem to think so because, according to an opinion poll published in February, 73% now support same-sex marriage — meaning the courts, and the legislature, have some considerable catching up to do.

Boies, summing up his clients’ case, said they had “put fear and prejudice on trial and fear and prejudice lost”. Let’s hope a similar victory is recorded in Ireland this summer.


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