My First Gay Wedding: An Affirmation of Human Dignity
On August 3, 2014, I attended my first gay wedding. It was a very moving event, at which I was privileged to be a witness. The wedding was held on the 16th anniversary of the day the two partners met. They come from a developed, democratic country in which gays cannot marry, but which will recognize their marriage if they have the ceremony performed elsewhere.
In Ontario, where I live, gay marriage has been legal since 2003. Gay marriage became legal in all of Canada in 2006. For a while, before some US states began to legalize gay marriages, the city of Toronto was the marriage location of choice for many Americans, and travel agencies sprang up specializing in gay wedding packages. Toronto has a big Gay Pride parade every year, and this year hosted World Pride, an enormous event. I keep thinking that I should join the parade, as part of the PFLAG (Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays: I have several gay and lesbian friends) but I don’t like crowds.
I asked one of the partners in the wedding I attended if he had taken part in the World Pride event. He replied “Not sure if I am politically for pride (must one celebrate privilege?).”My own view is that a World Pride parade is hardly a celebration of privilege, when so many countries still penalize gays and some even execute them for engaging in homosexual acts. Even here in Canada, gays are not privileged, unless you think marriage is a privilege for anyone (such would be the case in totalitarian countries where no one, gay or straight, can marry anyone without state permission).
Why should the right to marry be so important for gays? Lots of people, gay and straight, criticize the institution of marriage, and others don’t want to marry for personal reasons. Why aren’t civil partnerships enough for gays, giving them rights, for example, to be designated next of kin when one is hospitalized, to inherit from each other, and even to sponsor each other’s immigration?
The answer lies in the definition of human dignity. The 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) states in the first paragraph of its preamble that “recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.” The drafters of the UDHR never could agree on what dignity meant, but they knew it was important. They certainly didn’t mean the right of gay marriage back in 1948. Although article 16 of the UDHR says “Men and women of full age…have the right to marry and found a family”, the implicit assumption was that men and women would marry each other, not someone of the same sex. In 1948 homosexuality was illegal in most Western countries. People didn’t speak of it. British people of my mother’s generation used the term “confirmed bachelor” to describe gay men, meaning there was no point in considering them as future heterosexual marriage partners.
In 1995 I was trying to figure out what exactly human dignity meant. I concluded that “dignity requires personal autonomy, societal concern and respect, and treatment by others in society as an equal.’ (see Rhoda E. Howard, Human Rights and the Search for Community, Westview Press, 1995, p. 17). The legalization of gay marriage does allow gays and lesbians to autonomously choose to marry, or not. It implies that they are legally equal to heterosexuals. And it demonstrates some societal concern and respect: it show that others in society want to respect gay relationships and are concerned that gays be treated well,
Another, perhaps better, way top put this is to talk about the need for recognition. My friend and colleague Doron Shultziner wrote an entry on recognition for the second edition of the International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. Doron writes: ‘To recognize…means to behave in a manner that satisfies expectations of respect and contributes to a sense of positive self-esteem in those who are recognized.” He explains that philosophers have discussed the concept of recognition since Plato, who spoke of the soul’s need for pride and honor. From slaves to women to minorities, Doron says, people seek this recognition, or honor, both as individuals and as collectivities. Honor means that the individual is no longer stigmatized; he is no longer considered deviant, less than fully human, outside the community of obligation.
This is particularly important in North America, if not elsewhere, because of the intensified persecution of gay teenagers in high schools, not only through traditional face-to-face methods of bullying but also through cyber-bullying. Gay teenagers have extremely high rates of suicide. In my own high school days, gay teenagers were somewhat protected by schools’ and society’s disinclination to speak about sexual matters at all. When I was in grade 12, a couple of boys I knew were quietly separated, one being sent to a different school because they were gay, but I don’t believe they were bullied. Nowadays, we have the paradox that despite homosexuality being more accepted in Canadian society, gay children suffer intensely. And there is nothing in the United Nations 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child that specifically protects gay children. This is not surprising, because there is still no United Nations Convention on gay rights.
So the “privilege” of gay marriage is not a privilege at all. It is a method of acknowledging, recognizing, and honoring gay relationships, just as straight relationships have always been honored. It is a furthering of the core human rights mission of human dignity. Gay children need this dignity too.