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How gay marriage went mainstream

Resource type: News

The Irish Times | [ View Original Source (opens in new window) ]

The Gay and Lesbian Equality Network is an Atlantic grantee.

Kathy Sheridan

THE GAY WEDDING BUS is revving up. In the driving seat is Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore, sporting a big red T-shirt with the message, “Civil partnership is NOT marriage equality”. Behind him, highly excited, the latest crew to leap on board: the entire membership of Cork City Council. Hovering around the door is the Fine Gael Minister Leo Varadkar, murmuring that he’ll “probably” hop on at some stage.

In Britain the Conservative prime minister, David Cameron, is very relaxed about gay marriage and says he supports it because of his conservatism, not in spite of it. In the US President Barack Obama finally jumped on board, confident the issue has enough public momentum in election year. “Thank God I got gay-married last year when it was still cool and underground,” tweeted a New Yorker in response.

Back in Ireland Gilmore cited a February opinion poll that showed 73 per cent public support for same-sex marriage. Meanwhile, the Fianna Fáil ardfheis adopted a motion to recognise same-sex marriage, and about 60 gay couples turned up for Ireland’s first gay wedding and civil partnership fair, at the Absolute Hotel in Limerick.

A few weeks ago every political party in the State was represented among the 30,000 marchers at the Pride parade in Dublin. For the first time, amid the riot of feathers, heels, big hair and gold lamé hot pants, the parade was led by representatives of national and international police forces. Now that’s mainstream.

The breakneck gallop of the gay-marriage issue to the top of the social agenda has alarmed opponents. Even some gay-rights campaigners considered Gilmore’s characterisation of it as “the civil-rights issue of this generation” a bit over the top.

On the Telegraph website the blogger Brendan O’Neill noted that the “speed and ease with which gay marriage has gone from being a tiny minority concern to become the No 1 battle in the modern culture wars has been truly remarkable and revealing”.

The reason “it has been so speedily and heartily embraced by the political and media classes”, he suggested, “is because it is so very useful as a litmus test of liberal, cosmopolitan values. Supporting gay marriage has become a kind of shorthand way of indicating one’s superiority over the hordes, particularly those of a religious or redneck persuasion.”

There is no doubt that many conservative commentators in Ireland share O’Neill’s view.

The Fianna Fáil senator Jim Walsh, invariably described as a gentleman, even by his gay-rights opponents, says: “The problem is there is no counterbalance to the gay and lesbian lobby groups and the people within the media who are driving what’s happening at the moment . . . The IFA would have been the number-one lobby group in the country at one time, but I think the gay and lesbian lobby groups are far more effective, far more professional in their approach, far better resourced.” He means it as a compliment.

“There are no good, professional NGOs on our side.” Why? “The reality is that people are married, people have children, and as a consequence are focused on other priorities. And often this is going on without them necessarily engaging with it.”

Some around Leinster House pull surprised faces when they hear this. The Iona Institute, for example, blessed with extremely high-profile members with priceless multimedia platforms, is said to be “very, very engaged” with politicians. Small groups that were devoted to opposing civil partnership or that rallied against David Norris’s bid for the presidency haven’t gone away.

There are also rumours of a Catholic lobby group being set up within the Oireachtas. Walsh denies this, saying: “There is no Catholic lobby group on this issue, and I wouldn’t like it if there was.” But there might be a group for people “who are Catholic and want to be able to integrate their faith and their political life, where there would be a way to practise it,” he says. After all, he says, Mass is said regularly in the House of Commons and in the Bundestag.

BUT IN THE HUNT for something or someone to blame for the rise and rise of gay-marriage power – mysterious funding, liberal friends in the media, metropolitan snobbery, bandwagon-jumping – opponents have overlooked the most obvious factor of all: the staggering power of human visibility.

In Ireland the ground for civil partnership or gay marriage had been harrowed by couples such as Katherine Zappone and Ann-Louise Gilligan, whose public appearances in their ongoing court battle for the right to an Irish marriage revealed their unthreatening, almost nunlike ordinariness. They were followed by 738 couples – more than one a day – who have celebrated their civil partnerships since the law was enacted, 18 months ago.

No public-relations company could have done a more comprehensive job. Suddenly, same-sex couples were beaming delightedly from the front pages of every local newspaper.

In nearly every county, town and village, family, friends and neighbours flaunted their “wedding” invitations as a badge of pride, or of cool, or of downright relief after years of whispers and cover-ups. “It moved from an issue seen only in the pages of Hot Press to happy front-page pictures in the Longford Leader and the Enniscorthy Echo. The veil of strangeness was ripped off,” says Tiernan Brady of the Gay Lesbian Equality Network. These folk looked normal. “Kylie’s not behind you in the pictures, and you’re not in high heels,” says Brady with a grin.

Those couples at community level have changed everything, he believes. “They were given a large level of State recognition, and people saw that the sky didn’t fall down. They know now that this is not about ideology; it’s about real people being treated equally.”

In a way, says Brady, the “tragedy of a great social change such as civil partnership is its success. The day after it is passed everyone forgets what it was like before.” Politically, “it absolutely would not have happened without [then minister for justice] Dermot Ahern. He was a classic example of what I see as the Irish people’s sense of fairness. First, he was prepared to move from his original position, and then he really drove this at legislative level. There were backbench wobbles in the [Fianna Fáil] government party, and great care had to be taken that it didn’t become a political wedge.”

Only a few years on it seems the challenge now is to find a prominent politician prepared to oppose gay marriage out loud. Is the Taoiseach, who famously collided with a flowerpot in the rush to elude his questioners, in favour? There has been no indication that he supports it. “But he’s never said he’s against,” insists the Fine Gael TD Jerry Buttimer, with bullish confidence. The Corkman, who came out in April and describes himself as “very pragmatic as well as being a romantic”, says he understands why Enda Kenny is standing aloof.

“As head of Government, I don’t see how he can start recommending A, B or C to people who will have the job of consulting on this. He can’t pre-empt the constitutional convention.” Few are convinced about the convention, however. One wag calls it “the garden shed”, a dumping ground for any issue likely to cause Coalition grief until it’s safe to resurrect it – ideally, sometime in the next term.

Nonetheless, the campaign is on a roll. Can the Taoiseach keep eluding his questioners? Canny gay-rights activists are under no illusion. They know they’ve been parachuted into the middle of a small war that has less to do with the principle of gay marriage than with Labour’s fear that Fine Gael was stealing a march, plus the media’s growing exasperation with the Taoiseach’s reluctance to answer questions about anything.

But whatever Kenny’s personal view, few within Fine Gael doubt that the party itself could be ripped apart in such a campaign. It has always had difficulty with the social agenda.

Location is no guide. Among the pro side is the Wicklow farmer and Fine Gael TD Andrew Doyle, who says “we must distinguish between State and Church, and as a civil society we have a responsibility to display tolerance to all” while respecting those with strong religious beliefs. “There can be no question of forcing any religious order to impose any particular belief system.”

The party chairman, Charlie Flanagan, admits frankly that there is a “sizeable opposition” to gay marriage. He is also mindful of the effect of the McKenna judgment on broadcast debate in the event of a referendum. “Even if you have 93 per cent in favour by then, there must be equal debating time for both sides. So for every person talking about the reasonableness of gay marriage, there would have to be someone saying no. This could become very, very troublesome, contentious and difficult.”

As the Opposition spokesman on justice at the time of the Civil Partnership Bill, Flanagan remembers too well the poisonous gauntlet outside Leinster House, the catcalls and slogans from protesters who followed him down the street and across the road, bellowing “Flanagan the gay lover”, “Queers out” and “Your auld fella’s turning in his grave” – a reference to his arch-conservative father, Oliver J Flanagan.

SENATOR JIM WALSH also remembers. A member of Fianna Fáil for well over 40 years, he was a leader of a 30-strong parliamentary-party group – more than half of the backbenchers, he notes – who signed a motion opposing the Civil Partnership Bill. “The whole structure [of the motion] was to ensure that the constitutional position which gives special status to marriage would be maintained, for societal reasons, while recognising that people in same-sex relationships had issues that had to be recognised by the State as well.”

His position is simple. As a child of a single-parent family – his father died when he was five – he believes that “wherever possible, children have an absolute entitlement to a mother and a father. And I don’t think the State should interfere or make difficulties in that respect; it should be encouraging it. Marriage is ultimately child-centred. To redefine that to make it an almost completely adult-centred institution is to harm the institution.”

Walsh believed their motion had been accepted by the then taoiseach, Brian Cowen, and minister for justice, Dermot Ahern, and was “very disappointed” when the Bill was published, because it conveyed “most” marriage entitlements to civil partnerships.

After discussions with the minister and his officials he told the seventh World Meeting of Families in Italy this year that “it became obvious that select officials were driving the detail of the Bill. The minister conceded that it was being introduced primarily as a concession to the Green Party, as it was their only input into the programme for government. The whip was applied, and only three of us resigned the whip and voted against the Bill.”

Meanwhile, he too was getting his share of abuse. Emails congratulating him on an award carried a link to a website revealing the prize to be the site’s inaugural Bigot of the Month. “The gays had up on their website quotes [from me] that were certainly contrary to their viewpoint, but I don’t think anyone could have taken them as in any way offensive.” He was “set up”, he was told afterwards, by a young activist who put up “selected comments on the web”.

He was also targeted in New Ross, his home town, where posters were erected calling him a “homophobic bigot” and “misogynistic bigot”. It all helped him to understand colleagues who secretly agreed with him but were too frightened to say so out loud, he says. “But if you don’t have backbone in this game, you shouldn’t be in it.”

He rejects the argument that gay marriage is about equality. “You can never make same-sex sex the same as heterosexual sex,” he says, “because one has an intrinsic purpose and probably an outcome [children] that the other can never have. And I think that distinction has been lost.”

Dr John Murray of the Iona Institute called it “a denial of sexual complementarity” on The Last Word, Matt Cooper’s Today FM programme, last week. Marriage, he suggested, was now “being used as a way to socially engineer a change in public opinion with regard to homosexuality and homosexual acts”.

That argument is rarely heard any more – certainly not out loud, given that decriminalisation took place nearly 20 years ago.

On more familiar territory, Murray argued that same-sex marriage would destroy “the most essential message marriage, as a social institution, conveys to society: namely that children ideally should be raised by their own mother and father in a loving union.”

But he also conceded that he would have little objection to an unmarried gay couple adopting a child.

THIS IS THE Alice in Wonderland territory in which Vivian Cummins and Erney Breytenbach find themselves. Under Irish law, as individuals, they may adopt a child; as a gay couple, they may not. Legally married in South Africa, civil partners in Ireland and living in Athy, they have been fostering a child for eight years; Cummins describes him as “as much our son as a blood child at this stage”.

Under the contract, for which the Health Service Executive assessed them as a couple, the child is their responsibility until he is 18. The civil-partnership legislation recognises same-sex couples for matters such as tax, pensions and inheritance but does not acknowledge the possibility of children. If Cummins and Breytenbach were to dissolve their civil partnership next week, the law covers maintenance for the adults involved but makes no provision for dependent children.

The more common demand is for a gay couple that includes a biological parent to adopt their own children, says Cummins. Without that provision, the other partner is, legally, a stranger to the child. “It boils down to the reality of who can sign the consent form for a school tour. Only the biological parent can do that.”

At the opening of Athy’s new Model School recently, Cummins was invited to speak on behalf of the parents’ association. To a couple of straight parents present there was no mistaking his pride in that implicit acceptance. He says himself that he was “chuffed”.

While accepting that civil partnership has resolved “difficulties with practicalities, it’s all a bit like being on a wedding bus and saying that you have to sit on the lower deck and at the back . . . If that wasn’t good enough for Rosa Parks in the 1960s, it’s not good enough for us in 2012. It is a form of segregation.”

He says that Enda Kenny “should get off the fence. I would have more respect for him if he had come out and said, ‘I disapprove.’ At least then we could debate it.”

But Jerry Buttimer’s great fear is of a rushed referendum that would then be defeated. “What would happen then?”

The rush to push it through is palpable, but even Tiernan Brady of the Gay Lesbian Equality Network notes that no referendum anywhere in the world has passed gay marriage. Defeat is not something activists dare to think about. The great fear, says one, is the message that would be transmitted to gay people of all ages: “You have been rejected by the Irish people.”

Gay okay: How other countries treat same-sex partnership 

In the past decade 12 countries, along with a small number of states in the US, have legislated for same-sex marriage.

Despite a growing trend in favour of it, especially in Europe, there is no indication that international bodies are likely to endorse it any time soon.

The first country to legislate for same-sex marriage was the Netherlands, which did so in 2001, followed by Belgium in 2003 and Spain in 2005.

By 2005 change had also taken place in Canada, after two couples, one gay and the other lesbian, fought a court battle for the recognition of their marriages in 2001 in a church in Ontario. They won in that state, and this decision was followed in Quebec as well as in British Columbia, where Katherine Zappone, who is now a member of the Seanad, and Ann Louise Gilligan were married by an Episcopalian minister in 2003. In 2004 the Canadian Supreme Court ruled that these marriages were valid, and a federal law was passed in 2005.

In 2006 South Africa became the first – and, so far, only – African state to recognise the right to same sex-marriage, in a continent where homophobia is widespread and where gay and lesbian people are persecuted in many countries.

Four European countries subsequently legislated for gay marriage: Norway in 2008, Sweden in 2009, and Portugal and Iceland in 2010. It is significant that in Sweden the Lutheran church also voted to permit same-sex marriages in church.

Last month same-sex couples won the right to marry in church in Denmark.

In 2010 Argentina became the first Latin American country to join them, followed by Mexico, though with the caveat that such marriages can take place only in Mexico City, though they are recognised throughout the country.

So far six states in the US – New York, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Iowa, Vermont and New Hampshire – as well as the District of Columbia, permit same-sex marriage. Such marriages are not generally recognised federally, however, leaving the couple in a difficult situation if they move to another state. A wide range of rights, including immigration, inheritance, joint filing of state and federal tax returns, and social-security benefits, would not be available.

Various attempts to have same-sex marriage recognised under the European Convention on Human Rights have failed in the Strasbourg-based European Court of Human Rights. In 2010 the court ruled that a gay couple, Schalk and Kopf, were not denied their human rights by Austria when it did not permit them to marry. That year Austria legislated for civil partnership.

The court found that when the convention was adopted, in the 1950s, the right to marry was understood as being between a man and a woman. While acknowledging that a number of contracting states had extended marriage to same-sex partners, it said this flowed from the vision of marriage in their societies rather than any interpretation of the convention. There was no consensus among the 47 contracting states on the matter, and it was up to each one to decide on its position, it said.

In 2012 it reaffirmed this position in a case taken by a lesbian couple against France, stating that there is no obligation under the convention for states to legalise same-sex marriage or indeed to legalise same-sex civil partnerships.

There is nothing in the United Nations Declaration on Human Rights, nor in any ruling of its human-rights bodies, to support a right to same-sex marriage.

In 2008 a Dutch-French statement condemning violence, harassment and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity was presented to the general assembly but not signed. An opposing motion from the Arab League was not signed, either, and the issue remains divisive within the UN. CAROL COULTER , Legal Affairs Editor