Friday, February 7, 2014

Debating the debate over same-sex marriage

The biggest problem with trying to debate same-sex marriage in Ireland is not that one side wants to be able to use the term ‘homophobia’ while the other side wants to prohibit it. It’s not even that one side represents a large number of people who have been historically shut out of debate people while the other side represents a handful of conservative reactionaries (including the occasional token homosexual) who enjoy a huge platform despite representing virtually nobody.

No; the biggest problem with trying to debate same –sex marriage in Ireland is the complete and utter lack of even a single reasonable, rational argument against same-sex marriage. Setting aside a handful of libertarians (who oppose any recognition of marriage, not just same-sex marriage) and radical theorists who might oppose civil marriage because of its heteronormative implications but who have not featured at all in this debate, there is not a single reason that can be given which can explain why the state should discriminate against same-sex couples when it comes to civil marriage.

This makes the debate over same-sex marriage different from most other kinds of debate. Most other kinds of debate exist because there are reasonable views on all sides, and because each side still reckons it has a chance of persuading the other as to the reasonableness of their view.

As someone who has spent far too much time arguing about same-sex marriage with people, I’ve come across virtually every reason one might have to oppose it. Some of them we can dismiss out of hand – “the Bible says marriage is between a man and a woman” is a common one in some parts of the world but usually doesn’t cut it in an aspirationally secular country like Ireland such that even the staunchly Catholic Iona Institute knows such arguments would never gain traction. Nor do the more blatantly homophobic claims tend to work outside of places like Russia, where the frequent conflation between homosexuality and paedophilia would give people obvious reasons to oppose the normalisation of homosexuality, let alone the idea of gay couples raising kids.

Nevertheless there are still some “arguments” that those who oppose marriage equality tend to make. These arguments all focus on the well-being of children, and the claim that marriage is a uniquely “child-focused” institution such that to permit same-sex couples to marry would not be in the best interests of children. We are told that “every child has the right to a mother and father”, the implication being that allowing a child to be raised by a same-sex couple is a violation of its rights. Since it’s no longer acceptable to attack gay people directly, the emphasis is shifted to the well-being of children. After all, surely we all agree that a child’s best interests must come first.

In a normal debate, this is the point at which the defender of marriage equality notes that not only do we allow infertile couples to marry, none of us consider such couples any less married in the eyes of society or the state. It’s not as though we would prohibit such people from marrying if we could know beforehand – we simply have no problem considering them to be just as married as another couple with a dozen children.

In a normal debate, this is the point at which the defender of marriage equality notes that just because marriage serves one function (providing a good environment for the raising of children) this doesn’t mean that it cannot serve other functions too (like providing a stable, legally protected environment for people’s relationships to flourish, or providing people with the opportunity of making a socially significant, public declaration of their commitment to one another).

In a normal debate, this is the point at which the defender of marriage equality would point to the overwhelming consensus among those who have researched children raised by same-sex couples, to the testimony of children who have grown up in same-sex households, and note that a policy which focuses on a supposed ideal to the exclusion of all other family arrangements is not likely to serve the best interests of anyone in the real world.

In a normal debate, this is the point at which the defender of marriage equality would point out that we already distinguish between the right to marry and the right to be considered for adoption (elderly heterosexuals may do the former but not the latter for example), and that even if it was true that a child needs a mother and a father, that would still not imply that same-sex couples should not be entitled to marry.

But this is not a normal debate. Because each and every single time these kinds of reasons are given to people who oppose marriage equality, these points are ignored, or misrepresented, or dismissed as nonsense by those who are very much interested in trying to force their views upon us, but have apparently zero interest in the possibility that they might have to change theirs.

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