After centuries when the topic wasn’t even thinkable, the issue of gay marriage has suddenly swept around the world like a tornado. Countries in Europe – including Britain – are falling over themselves to give gay couples partnership rights, while in the United States the political and religious conservatives think they’ve found themselves a sure-fire vote winner by opposing such developments.
In Canada, the Supreme Court has told the government to introduce gay marriage by May – or else! – and in Spain, the conservatives and the Catholics have joined forces to make capital from bigotry. The Independent then tells us that even Tasmania – once regarded as the most homophobic place in Christendom – has introduced a Relationships Act which the paper says is “one of the world’s most enlightened pieces of legislation.”
Britain, then, is proceeding towards the legal gay partnership with comparative decorum. All is serene as we await publication of the parliamentary Bill that will represent the biggest advance in gay rights since… well, since ever!
I say that all is quiet, but that does not mean that the dead-head religious groups that have been fulminating from the sidelines might not be preparing a nasty surprise. Despite the fact that the Conservative party has decided to allow its MPs a free vote, we should not drop our guard until Her Majesty has autographed the statute.
But preparations are in progress. The Sunday Telegraph advised us that the National Trust has announced that it is making some of its properties available for the celebration of gay partnership ceremonies. Given the middle-England make-up of the National Trust’s membership, this news sparked only token resistance from some of the predictable fuddy-duddies – like right-wing “philosopher”, Roger Scruton. He told The Sunday Times: “The purpose of the National Trust is to maintain some kind of picture of what the English countryside and properties were like, and one thing they were not like is that.”
It’s a very different story in the USA, where hysteria informs the topic at every turn. Last November the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts ruled that prohibiting same-sex couples the right to marry violated the state’s Constitution. The court gave the State Legislature 180 days (which expire on 17 May) to rewrite the law in order to permit same-sex marriage. It now turns out that under Article IV of the US Constitution, same-sex marriages performed in Massachusetts may have to be recognised in other states. (Coincidentally, New Jersey has just become the fifth US state to voluntarily recognise same-sex unions).
The right-wing is pushing for a Constitutional amendment that would reserve marriage for only one man and one woman. Bush says he’s sympathetic to such a move, but he hasn’t said he’ll support it yet.
Meanwhile – seeing the Democrats taking a lead in the polls – Republicans around the country are trying desperately to exploit the uncertainty and, in the process, garner more votes for November’s presidential election.
Much of their ire is directed at Democrat front-runner, Howard Dean. When he was governor of Vermont he committed the cardinal sin of signing a civil unions bill that granted gay couples the same rights as marriage.
The Christian soldiers who are presently running the United States demanded that he say where he currently stands on the issue. Mr Dean – recognising the need not to upset the powerful religious constituency in the US – equivocated. In an interview with the Washington Post he said that while he doesn’t support gay “marriage”, he could live with “civil unions” for gay and other unmarried partners.
“The overwhelming evidence is that there is a very significant, substantial genetic component to it”, Mr Dean told reporters: “From a religious point of view, if God had thought homosexuality is a sin, he would not have created gay people. My view of Christianity… is that the hallmark of being a Christian is to reach out to people who have been left behind. So I think there is a religious aspect to my decision to support civil unions.”
Last November, an opinion poll for The Boston Herald showed voters only narrowly supported “gay marriage”, but overwhelmingly supported the idea of equal rights for gay couples. In other words, call it something other than “marriage” and you’ll win.
But one person who doesn’t care for that particular compromise is Andrew Sullivan, a gay Englishman who made a career as a conservative pundit in the USA. In the column he writes for The Sunday Times, Mr Sullivan – a long-time advocate of gay marriage – praised Britain for its commonsense approach, but wanted to know why a proposal that was, to all intents and purposes, marriage, wasn’t being called marriage. “I have a feeling that many gay couples might even take such partnerships more seriously than some straight couples, because they have never taken them for granted,” he wrote. “These couples will have children; they will cohabitate; they will share finances; they will be everything that married couples are. So why call them something else?”
In Canada, the Government is under orders from the Courts to redefine marriage so as to include same-sex couples. There is much reactionary agitation aimed at blocking the change. Despite their best efforts, though, the conservatives and the Catholics have not yet been able to derail this decision, and if nothing dramatic happens, gay marriage should be legal in Canada within the year.
Meanwhile, in Rome, the quavering pope reinforced his opposition to gay unions over the holiday. The Vatican announced, through its Zenit News Service, that Pope John Paul II had once more “called for a greater defence of the institution of marriage between man and woman” and said that the push for gay marriage was the result of “misunderstood rights”.
The Vatican has ordered Catholic politicians to oppose gay rights whenever they have the opportunity. They should, the pope says, promote Catholic dogma even if it contradicts the clearly stated desires of constituents. Anti-democratic, or what?
In Spain, “domestic partnership rights” are being manipulated into a wedge issue for the forthcoming election. The opposition Socialist Party has put forward a package of reforms including the legal recognition of gay couples. This has given the ruling Popular Party the opportunity to moralise and drag in the powerful Spanish Catholic Church to support it.
The head of the Church in Spain, Cardinal Antonio Maria Rouci Varela, delivered what he hoped would be a knock-out blow. He claimed granting gay people partnership rights would result in the collapse of the social security system. Finance Minister Cristobal Montoro said that the proposals would “ruin economic growth and job creation”, leading to “a society of the unemployed.”
The Socialists responded by calling the Minister “imbecilic”. The Spanish Federation of Lesbians and Gays said that the government, in league with a bigoted Church, were trying to “promote an intolerant society”. A Christian gay group said the Cardinal had made a fool of himself by delivering a pack of lies under the guise of a sermon (but aren’t all sermons a pack of lies by their very nature?) Anyway, Spain seems to have an unpleasant battle on its hands.
Whereas, back in Britain, the Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland broke the religious mould by making plain his backing for the Government’s proposals for civil partnerships. Iain Torrance – for it is he – said it was “a matter of justice, not religion”. He told The Herald newspaper in Glasgow that he was sad that the various churches were being so “defensive”. Christianity, he said, “has a long tradition of defining itself by vilifying the other.”
Other priests have reached the same conclusion. According to the National Catholic Reporter, 23 priests in Chicago signed a round-robin letter addressed to “The Hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church”, calling on it to stop using “violent and abusive language” in relation to gay people.
“Has any other group within the Body of Christ been so assaulted and violated by such mean-spirited language?” they asked. They point to a document released by the Vatican last summer that condemned gay unions and which, the letter writers assert, “demonised these children of God” by using such terms a “a serious depravity” and “a grave detriment to the common good” and “intrinsically disordered” about gay people. “Does anybody consider this vile and toxic language invitational?” they asked.
The originator of the letter, Fr. Richard Prenderghast, told The National Catholic Reporter: “The Vatican statement has caused Catholic homosexuals to finally ‘flip the switch’ and abandon Catholicism. They’re beyond anger. There’s just sadness that they can’t belong to such a church anymore.”
Oh well, the Vatican document did some good, then.