How the Debate On Gay Rights is Refocusing A Broader Discussion of Marriage

This is an article I had published in T.C.D. Miscellany last Autumn. Seems apt to stick it up here given the discussion of marriage going on in Ireland after Sunday’s ‘March for Marriage’ in Dublin. That said, my views on marriage as an institution and on the importance of marriage as a ‘gay issue’ are in flux at the moment, so I may publish a response to myself shortly.

On July 30th, Jose Luis Navarro, 54, and Miguel Angel Calefato, 65, became the first gay couple to marry following Argentina’s decision to legalise full marriage for same-sex couples. At the ceremony, the presiding official simply used a pen to cross out “man and woman” on the marriage license, replacing it with “contracting parties” and undercutting all of those who allow purely semantic objections to prevent the marriages of gay couples.

In contrast, when Dr. Katherine Zappone and Dr. Ann-Louise Gilligan contacted the Irish Revenue Commission in 2003 to seek the recognition of their Canadian marriage, the response was that they were not entitled to the benefits of a married couple because, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, marriage is between a man and woman. That decision was upheld by the High Court, and the couple await a hearing at the Supreme Court. 

Drs. Gilligan and Zappone met in the United States, over 25 years ago, and pledged their lifelong commitment to each other shortly afterward. On returning to Ireland, they both continued to work as lecturers in education and theology. They also established ‘The Shanty Education Project’ (now ‘An Cosán’), which provides childcare, education and leadership opportunities in the community of Tallaght West and Jobstown. In person they are charming, engaging and eloquent, exuding positivity about their relationship despite the struggles and discriminations they have been forced to endure. Across Ireland and internationally, theirs is a love story which has inspired new belief in the possibility of lifelong love.


               Their story is emblematic of how the debate on gay marriage has crystallized the wider discussion of the value of marriage in our society. In the last few decades the increase, or at least increased visibility, of divorce, cheating spouses and broken homes has left many people feeling disillusioned, and often victimised by marriage. To others it is simply outdated or irrelevant. Accordingly, many straight couples with the option of marriage choose not to use it.  However, the worth of any institution is assessed not by the response of those who can afford to be complacent, but by those who are denied it and the vehemence with which they fight for it.

The Irish Constitution pledges to “guard with special care the institution of Marriage, on which the Family is founded, and to protect it against attack.” Drs. Gilligan and Zappone argued that this section of the constitution does not preclude same-sex couples from the same protection. The benefits which accrue to both individuals and society through marriage, apply to gay couples as much as any other. What are those benefits?

The first and most obvious is that marriage, traditionally at least, is a stable and secure atmosphere in which to produce and raise children. Some argue that gay people cannot fulfil that function, and therefore have no stake in marriage. This claim is a full-scale betrayal of the gay families which already exist in our society, thanks to IVF, surrogacy or single parent adoption (which is allowed under the Civil Partnership Bill, though joint custody is refused). Under the status quo the children of these families are massively vulnerable. Firstly, they have to live and grow up in a community which rejects the validity of their families, regardless of how happy or functional they are. This creates a massive disconnect between the children and their society. From a pragmatic point of view, the non-legal parent faces considerable difficulties with regard to consent and involvement in education or healthcare. And finally, the worst case scenario is that the legal parent dies and the remaining partner, a parent in every other sense, has no legal claim. The state has completely failed these children by wilfully blinding itself to their existence and denying their parents the securities of marriage. 

That said; it is a fallacy to suggest that marriage exists only for the sake of children. Straight couples who can’t have children, whether because of age or fertility problems, never have their right to marry questioned. The reason is that marriage has massive personal and social benefits for couples who choose to marry. The first is that it is a clear indication of society’s acceptance of a relationship. While many of us might wish love could exist in a vacuum, without ever having the necessity to bring someone home to meet the family, it doesn’t. We seek affirmation from those around us, and we hope for our relationships to become welcome elements of the community in which we live. The refusal of marriage, and of that affirmation, is a statement that the love a couple feel, and the relationship they have, is not good enough. As most gay couples will confirm, a relationship becomes far easier and more positive after both partners have come out to family and friends. Marriage is an extension of the same principle, and the legalisation of marriage is therefore crucial to fully accepting gay people in our society.


The progress on this issue internationally suggests the Ireland will eventually be compelled to legalise full gay marriage, whether by international opinion or by law, as it was compelled by the ECHR to decriminalise homosexuality in 1993. Furthermore, the Civil Partnership Bill passed the Dáil without vote in July, suggesting no massive ideological objection among T.D.s. So why the delay?

While the Church arguably takes some responsibility for the slow adjustment, to blame it completely is untenable, as other predominantly Catholic countries have already legalised gay marriage. Spain, home of the Inquisition was the second country in the world to introduce such legislation and Argentina’s decision was made against the strong objection of the Church there. What Ireland suffers from is no longer extreme religiousness, but the conservative aftertaste, where discrimination against gays comes not from religious fervour, such as can be seen in areas of Africa or the U.S., but from an ill-defined dislike of homosexuals and their behaviour. A vague distaste, however, does so little harm to those who feel it, that it cannot justify the significant harm and reduction of quality of life inflicted upon gay people by the refusal of marriage. The ultimate culpability, therefore, lies with legislators who are unwilling to accept real moral responsibility out of fear of their constituents’ traditional prejudices. Historically, the Irish government has regularly abdicated responsibility for legislating on moral questions, instead forcing individuals, like Drs. Gilligan and Zappone, to risk public exposure and personal trauma by appealing to the courts as private citizens. For example, the fourteen year-old known as X, who had been raped by a neighbour, become pregnant and suffered from suicidal thoughts due to the unwanted pregnancy, was forced to suffer the additional trauma of an appeal to both the High Court and Supreme Court, due to the lack of clarity in abortion legislation. Another example is the Norris -vs- Ireland case, in which the Trinity lecturer and Senator had to take a case to the European Court of Human Rights to achieve decriminalisation of homosexuality, having lost in the Irish Supreme Court. When the ECHR ruled in his favour, decriminalisation met with no opposition in the Dáil, again reflecting the laziness and cowardice of politicians neglected to act sooner.   

To give what little credit is due; over the summer the President was given the opportunity to sign a Civil Partnership Bill into law, providing certain benefits to long-term co-habiting couples, with regard to pension entitlements, succession of property. The response of the gay community to what Senator Norris describes as “dog licenses” has been less than rapturous. In the Marriage Equality March, which took place on August 22nd, LGBT campaigners rightfully argued that Civil Partnership comes nowhere close to real equality, as well as propagating a disturbing discourse of ‘separate but equal’. Firstly, couples obviously want the full benefits which accrue to marriage but, for many more importantly, there is a status and recognition attached to marriage which is greater than the sum of its parts. For that reason, even if full tax benefits, inheritance rights and parenting rights were afforded to gay couples under a different title it wouldn’t be enough.

As well as changing our societal discourse on marriage, this debate has also allowed the gay community to break down some of the old stereotypes. Slurs of promiscuity and wild living sound rather ridiculous when what gay people are asking for is the right to settle down with one person and, in some cases, start a family. While the Gay Rights Movement has always been cast as liberal to the point of radicalism, in this instance they are in fact taking a stand for family values (in the literal rather than pejorative sense) and forcing us as a society to rethink our views on those values. Do we value marriage because it’s an age old union between man and woman? Or do we value it because it’s an opportunity for two individuals, whatever their gender, to seek happiness for themselves, a happiness which deserves our support?

Finally, we must remember that there are countless silent victims of our failure to act on this issue. For all those members of the LGBT community who march and demonstrate for their rights, many more do not, out of embarrassment or fear. People argue against gay marriage and adoption for the sake of children. Anyone who wants to argue for the rights of the child has to remember the children grow up and that when they do one in ten, at a conservative estimate, will come to realise they’re gay and face the often harrowing process of coming to terms with their sexuality, and coming out to a society which continues to reject them and deny them a “normal” life. And there are adults all around us who never managed to come to terms, who could never face the judgement or disappointment of those around them. They keep quiet, often in unhappy marriages or unhappily single, prevented from achieving their full potential by having to ignore a central element of themselves. It’s important to remember that when people realise they’re gay they have to deal not only with different desires, which are often judged or condemned; they must also re-navigate their futures, not being able to live the lives they and their families had planned, which almost always include marriage and children. A society in which these things are off-limits is a society in which coming out is necessarily an overwhelmingly difficult process.

The debate over gay marriage is not an abstract one. We have an opportunity to afford greater happiness to thousands of people who have been denied it thus far, we have an opportunity to strengthen the shaky institution of marriage, through an act of inclusion and celebration and we have a chance to prove that as a society we care enough to take a stand for the rights of our citizens, rather than wandering on in political indifference. Gay marriage will come about eventually, why not make it now?



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