With the controversial same-sex marriage debate rising and reaching the Assembly in Northern Ireland, Enrique Anarte Lazo looks at the roots of the problem and the attitude towards it of the international community
Last week, the Northern Ireland Assembly rejected a motion to introduce same-sex marriage in the province. Of the 94 Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLA) present, 45 voted in support of this motion, but only three among them were unionists. Nevertheless, considering that only three votes separated gay marriage supporters from approval, couldn’t we consider this as a breakthrough?
Marriage equality is a contemporary issue that politicians can no longer avoid. Year after year Gay Pride parades grow bigger and, at the same time, gay rights activists try to go further in their attempt to reach that utopian equality. Though in the past many of these events would have only been attended by the LGBTQ community, now we are getting used to see a growing number of heterosexuals who are also willing to fight for their cause.
The answer to the question of whether same-sex couples should be able to get married or not is not simple. In countries like Ireland and Spain, in which the Catholic Church has had a history of strong influence and political power, it is difficult to have a constructive debate leaving aside personal opinions and beliefs.
The Spanish discussion about this topic, for example, shows bi-directional steps. On the one hand, the Spanish Royal Academy, the official institution in charge of the regulation of the Spanish language, recently included in its dictionary the concept of same-sex marriage. On the other hand, the recently elected conservative government is trying to revoke the law that currently allows for same-sex marriages because of its alleged unconstitutionality. The Supreme Court hasn’t pronounced itself on the matter yet.
The Spanish Constitution, nowadays widely criticised by the 15-M movement and many minor parties because of its many political irregularities, defines marriage as the union between a man and a woman. Nonetheless, it was made more than 30 years ago, in a time in which no country had granted same-sex marriage rights. It wasn’t until 2001 that this first became law, in the Netherlands. Now the problem is whether laws should be adjusted to the real social situation, or should they stay the same just because they are part of the Constitution?
To solve these problems in a satisfactory way, at least for the majority of the society, it is necessary to create a space of dialogue. That is why European democracies have always been an example to follow. This myth collapses, however, with topics like gay rights or abortion, which both require forgetting about theological and religious thinking, and focusing on legal, social and political arguments. Spain and Ireland are two obvious examples of the failure of the secular state for exactly this reason.
On the other side of the coin we have the case of Sweden. Not only have Swedish people created a model democracy and judiciary system, but they have also reached something that here is almost unbelievable. Since the first of November 2009, Swedish Christian priests have been allowed to wed same-sex couples. This looks somewhat less realistic or even likely when looking at the rest of Europe.
The opposition of Christian churches to homosexuality is not new, but neither are their arguments, which are mainly based on the medieval theology of Thomas Aquinas. Furthermore, most of the persecutions, tortures and murders of homosexuals throughout history performed were strongly influenced by Christian teachings. Looking at Sweden we should think that all this terrifying past can be left behind, but are other European churches prepared, and more importantly, willing to do so?
Even North America isn’t a good place to look to. While same-sex marriage is legal in the whole territory of Canada since 2005, this is not the case in the United States. The USA, the land of contrasts, shows radically different attitudes towards homosexual people. There the ‘Defence of Marriage Act’ prevents the federal government from recognising same-sex marriages and many of the states don’t recognise it, although it has been legalised in six states and one district.
The situation is, of course, dramatically worse in some non-Western and non-democratic countries where homosexuals are discriminated against, abused and sometimes even killed every day. It is the duty of Western democracies to become a model for these countries, as well as in many other issues concerning human rights. First, however, there is still a lot to be done inside our own boundaries to reach that aim.
In Northern Ireland there are special circumstances that affect the question of same-sex marriage. The DUP, the largest party in the Northern Ireland Assembly, has a reputation of being an extremist anti-gay force. Many of its members have showed an open rejection of everything related to gay rights and some of their public declarations have led to media scandals because of their extremism. Moreover, according to some surveys, Ulster is the most religious part of the UK.
In a society in which globalisation and multiculturalism are playing the main role in the definition of cultural identities, it is no longer possible for governments to adopt positions that don’t accept the variety and diversity of lifestyles and that don’t consider the possibility of a society built on dialogue and respect. This is of course, a long road that we have to walk step by step, because that’s the way society changes: little by little. When something is worth fighting for, eventually each of these little steps turns out to be worthy. And, for the gay marriage vote in Northern Ireland, this has been a successful defeat.