Sunday, 30 June 2013

In defense of Marriage (Gay and Straight)

In Defense of Marriage (Gay and Straight)
Celebrations outisde the US Supreme Court after DOMA was ruled unconstitutional, Wikimedia Commons
Last week the US Supreme Court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act by a vote of five to four. Shamefully, President Bill Clinton had signed this act in 1996. It outlawed federal benefits to same-sex partners of individuals who worked for the federal government, even if two same-sex individuals had been legally married in a US state. Marriage in the US is regulated by the states, and the federal government is supposed to recognize the marriages that the states authorize.
I live in Canada, where same-sex marriage has been universally recognized since 2006. Before that, most of Canada’s provincial and territorial jurisdictions had already legalized same-sex marriage, although the new government of Nunavut, whose tiny population is composed mainly of indigenous people, hadn’t got around to legalizing it yet. The anti- gay marriage lobby frequently argues that homosexual marriages will undermine male-female heterosexual marriages. Since gay marriage was legalized in Canada, there’s been no evidence that this is true. Straight people aren’t any less likely to get married because gay people can get married. If anything, gay marriage strengthens marriage as a social institution. It affirms the partnership of two people, whether gay or straight; it grants them all the legal rights and responsibilities of straight marriages; and it protects their children.
In 2005 I spent four months teaching in the human rights master’s program at the University of Goteborg in Sweden. While I was there, I was asked to spend a morning at Lund University’s Faculty of Law teaching in one of its short courses for international human rights activists. The group I taught was eleven Muslim activists from Indonesia, of whom one only (if I remember correctly) was a woman. This was a fairly liberal group of Muslims; only one man refused to shake my hand (I am a woman), and all the others stood up and offered their hands to me so that I would not be embarrassed.
The morning’s topic was human rights and cultural relativism, and I had been advised not to discuss gay rights, so of course I did. Immediately, the activists told me that they opposed gay marriage, so I said, “Let’s start at the beginning.” I wanted to see how far this group of activists would go in defending homosexuals’ rights. Should they be killed, I asked: No, was the unanimous response. Should they be imprisoned? Again, the unanimous response was no.  Should they be denied an education or a job because they are gay? Again, unanimously, no.  Should a landlord have to rent a room to a gay couple if it is in the same house he lives in?  Here, the activists defended the landlord’s right to refuse to rent the couple a room. And finally, should gay marriage be recognized?  The answer to this one was no, all around. So this group of Indonesian activists had more or less the same attitudes to homosexuals as existed in Canada around 1980, when homosexual acts were no longer illegal and discrimination against them was gradually being outlawed. 
Marriage Equality symbol, Wikimedia Commons
 I mention this discussion because of the recent upsurge of anti-homosexual lawmaking in some African and Eastern European countries. President Obama was in Senegal last week, and when he mentioned the rights of gays in his speech there the Senegalese President responded with a defense of anti-homosexual laws. It’s common in Africa now to argue that gay rights are just another Western imperialist plot (much as many Africans used to argue that women’s rights were a Western imperialist plot, until so many African women scholars, lawyers and activists started defending women’s rights that that argument became ridiculous). Also, anti-gay evangelical Christians are influencing the debate in Africa. At the same time, Russia has passed a law outlawing homosexual “propaganda.” This is a nationalist assertion of Russian “values” against the “corrupt” West, and a way for President Putin to gain cheap points against human rights defenders.
These reactions against gay rights are a worrisome trend, and show us that there is nothing inevitable about progress toward their complete defense. Gays still face execution in some countries, imprisonment in more, and rampant discrimination in many places.  But the thoughtful exploration of gay rights that I had with my class of eleven Indonesian Muslim activists in 2005 gives me hope that more and more people are beginning to acknowledge them. It will take quite a while before every country gives gays and lesbians the right to marry each other and become what they are; ordinary people who want to establish families, raise their children, and have their relationships acknowledged by their relatives, society and the state.  Indeed, this may never happen, if we are not vigilant in protecting gay rights/
I think marriage is a useful social institution. It regularizes each party’s rights and responsibilities, and makes sure that children are protected in cases of divorce or death. Society’s commitment to the relationship—through the legal institution of marriage- also strengthens the partnership. Everyone has an interest in making sure the partnership survives. Children of the partnership feel more secure knowing that their parents have legal commitments to one another. This doesn’t mean that I favor the old-fashioned patriarchal marriage that existed in Canada, and everywhere else, until the 1970s or so. But I do think it’s a good idea to defend the institution, and to extend it to everyone.

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