In the Australian debate on same-sex marriage, engaging with people on the other side of the aisle has become so emotionally charged that I constantly find myself having to step back and ask those with whom I disagree: “Is it possible to respectfully disagree on this, or is disagreeing on this issue disrespectful in and of itself?” Unfortunately, a growing number of people seem to be saying “No, disagreeing on this issue is disrespectful in and of itself.” To the extent that people believe this, we have lost our capacity for civil discourse in areas of disagreement. When we’re unwilling to sympathetically listen to the other side, it becomes very easy to marginalise those with whom we passionately disagree. The LGBT community knows this more than most.
I’ve been trying to sympathetically listen to both sides, and I’m certainly willing to change my mind on this issue, but no one is persuaded by ad hominem arguments. Here are the arguments as I understand them, and the reasons why I’m currently unpersuaded/persuaded by them.
Three reasons for same-sex marriage
- Its about basic human rights
If it were about basic human rights, I would be behind it 100%. But I don’t think it is, and neither does the European court for human rights.
According to Australian law, no one (gay or straight) is allowed to marry:
(a) someone whose already married to someone else
(b) someone whose under a certain age
(c) someone whose a close relative
(d) (currently) someone of the same-sex
People in the LGBT community already have the same marital rights and restrictions that everyone else does, but the kind of relationship that they pursue is not currently recognised as marriage. And so, understandably, they would like the legal definition of marriage changed to include the kind of relationship that they pursue. Of course, they’re free to campaign for that, but this is not a human rights issue. The LGBT community already has the same marital rights and restrictions as everyone else, and people in civil unions have the same rights that people in marriages have under Australian law. Changing the definition of marriage will not give the LGBT community a human right that they currently don’t have.
- Its about equality
If it were about equality, I would be behind it 100%. But I don’t think it is, and neither do some people in the LGBT community. During the Irish referendum on same-sex marriage, a few of them said precisely this. One of them, Keith Mills, said this:
“For me, this referendum is not about equality… if you approve the government’s amendment, you will be saying that there’s no distinction between the union of a man and woman, and of two men, or two women. There is a difference between our relationships and to pretend otherwise is wrong. Its not a matter of better or worse, its a matter of recognising difference and celebrating diversity. Saying that there is no distinction is ridiculous… True equality recognises difference.”
Another gay man, Paddy Manning, said:
“A same-sex relationship is different to a marriage… There are many people who feel the same way as I do. But they’re afraid to speak out because of the extraordinary bullying that coming from the ‘yes’ campaign. We shouldn’t bow to that intimidation.”
Homosexual relationships are different to heterosexual relationships, and that’s ok. One doesn’t have to be any lesser than the other in order to recognise the difference between them. A few years ago, we used to be able to say that men and women are different (even that men are from Mars and women are from Venus) without automatically implying that one was superior and the other was inferior. People have a whole host of different relationships with different people. We don’t have to call our relationships the same thing in order to fight for the equality of people.
- Its about dignity
If it were about human dignity, I would be behind it 100%. But I don’t think that it is, and if you’re a humanist, then neither should you. Humanism ascribes value/dignity/worth to people because they’re humans, not because a government puts a certain rubber stamp on their relationship. As a humanist, I think that single people (gay or straight) have dignity, and that they can live valuable, dignified and worthwhile lives without acquiring a certain relationship that society calls ‘marriage’. As a humanist, I also believe that LGBT people have value, dignity and worth, not because of what people call the relationship that they pursue, but because they’re people. They don’t need to achieve anything in order to be valued, they should just be valued because they’re people. If anyone (gay or straight) feels that their value/dignity/worth depends on what other people think or call their relationship, then the bigger problem is that they don’t realise that they’re valuable, dignified and worthwhile just as they are, simply because their human. Telling people that their dignity depends on something else is a recipe for low self-esteem, and all of the problems that low self-esteem causes.
Three reasons against same-sex marriage
- Consequences for freedom
Same-sex marriage has consequences for freedom. In 2015, a British journalist said to an Australian audience:
“200 years ago, if you didn’t believe in God, you wouldn’t have a hope in hell of getting ahead in public life. Today, if you don’t believe in gay marriage, you don’t have a hope in hell of getting ahead in public life. There’s a real ugly element to this, and I think you really see it with the whole cake shop phenomenon. This whole thing around the western world where people are going to Christian traditional cake shops and saying to them “Hey you stupid Christians, make this cake for me.” And if they don’t, they call the police, there are equality cases, shops have closed down. Its like a 21st century form of religious persecution. Its horrendous. Of course some people support gay marriage as we’ve heard and that’s absolutely fine. But what’s extraordinary and unacceptable is that they cannot tolerate the existence of people who do not support gay marriage, and I think we sometimes fail to understand how extraordinary that is.”
Two years later, he’s still getting angry emails for saying that. Also in 2015, a Catholic archbishop was brought before a commission for teaching the Catholic view of marriage to Catholics. Last year, evangelical church ministries were threatened for reading out certain parts of the Bible during their church services and physical threats were made to the Mercure hotel staff for renting a private room to the Australian Christian Lobby for an invite-only meeting to discuss same-sex marriage. Earlier this year, legal action was taken against a Presbyterian pastor and a street evangelist for offending atheists and homosexuals (imagine if legal action could be taken for offending Christians). And currently, the state is telling churches what they can and cannot say. This has all happened in Australia while the definition of marriage in Australian law is the union of a man and a woman. What will happen if/when its changed?
According to Christians in the United States, when similar things happened in the U.S. “many of you shrugged your shoulders and thought to yourselves that the homophobes got what they deserved. You didn’t care about these people, and you didn’t respect their right to live out their beliefs because you thought there was something fundamentally wrong with those beliefs.” Perhaps some homophobes are getting what they deserve, perhaps there is something fundamentally wrong with Christian beliefs, but a number of people are genuinely concerned for their livelihood, their freedom of speech, and their freedom to practice their religion, and shrugging our shoulders is not the best response.
- Consequences for education
Same-sex marriage has consequences for education. With the push for same-sex marriage in Australia has come the push for the safe-schools anti-bullying program, which is being rolled out in state schools in Victoria next year. This program has the noble aim of reducing bullying, an aim that no one disagrees with. But a statement of purpose alone doesn’t give it a free-pass from all inquiries. A number of parents and teachers have legitimate concerns. One such teacher describes her concerns as follows:
“The majority of this so-called anti-bullying material – from kindergarten up, is in fact explicit sex education. Kinder teachers faced with a student asking ‘what is a clitoris?’ are instructed to answer, ‘If you rub it, it feels good.’ They’re teaching masturbation to 4 year olds. Page after page of lesson plans made no mention of bullying, but instead graphically fixated on – and normalised – the high-risk sex lives of fictional, seemingly emotionless teens, always categorised as LGBTI, Cis, etc. Sexually-transmitted infections were literally described as a ‘normal part of sex’, something to test for and treat, not to avoid. Discussions of domestic violence focused almost solely on male to female violence, further humiliating male victims and embedding harmful gender stereotypes. There were no caveats in the material acknowledging that gender fluidity, male privilege, and unconscious bias are disputed sociological theories, worthy of investigation and debate, but not objective, settled science. The existential premise of the Safe Schools Coalition is that ‘humans are sexual beings from birth’.”
At the very least, these claims warrant investigation into the safe schools program. We certainly need good anti-bullying programs, and no one is disagreeing with the stated aim of the safe schools program. But having a noble aim doesn’t make its content immune from scrutiny. Primary school teachers shouldn’t have to teach sexually explicit content to pre-pubescent children. And high school teachers should be free to recommend to 13 and 14 year olds that they delay sexual activity (which is also under attack).
The creator of the safe schools program has said that “the safe schools coalition is about supporting gender and sexual diversity, not about celebrating diversity, not about stopping bullying, [but] about gender and sexual diversity.” If the law tells us that marriage between two homosexual, bisexual or transgender persons is the same as marriage between two heterosexual persons, then, as a matter of equality, children will be made to learn that sexual activity between two homosexual, bisexual or transgender persons is the same.
- Consequences for gender
Same-sex marriage has consequences for gender. A few years ago, we used to be able to say that humans are a sexually dimorphic species (two biological sexes). But now, people who identify as non-binary or gender fluid are asking us to re-evaluate these categories. Wherever same-sex marriage has gone, there have been consequences, not just for freedom and education, but also for gender. In the United States, this has led to a situation in the world of mixed martial arts where a competitor who was identified as a male at birth, has since become a transgender woman, and is now fighting (and winning) against women in mixed martial arts competitions. A few weeks before Trump banned transgender people from serving in the military in the United States, female soldiers were asked to shower with transgender women who still had male parts. In Canada, the words ‘mother’ and ‘father’ have been removed from birth certificates, and university professors are teaching their students that “its not correct that there is such a thing as biological sex.” Call me old-fashioned (or worse), but I still think that human beings are a sexually dimorphic species. I think that biology teachers should be able to teach this until its scientifically proven otherwise, and I think that this is something that should be recognised in certain sports and as well as public change rooms and showers. There’s certainly a spectrum between masculinity and femininity, but we don’t have to throw out biological facts, sporting regulations, or privacy policies in order to love and respect the LGBT community.
One of the consequences for gender in this debate is in the adoption of children by same-sex couples. Of course same-sex couples can provide a loving home for children, and this is the most important factor in decisions regarding the placement of children. Having both a male and a female role-model is certainly not the only factor to consider – two mums will always be better than a mum and an abusive dad. But research suggests that having a mother and a father should be one of the factors that is considered, and this also supported by the testimony of people who were raised by good, loving, same-sex couples. However, if the definition of marriage is changed, there will be no grounds for this factor to be considered, it will be discrimination to do so. For this reason, where same-sex marriage as gone, adoption agencies that have reservations about placing children with same sex-couples have closed.
For these reasons, I’m currently leaning towards voting ‘no’ in the upcoming postal survey, but I’ll certainly be looking for reasons to change my mind until then. Whichever way the vote goes, the government would be very foolish to ignore the will of the people, it would be inviting civil unrest if it did.
The LGBT community has had to fight hard for the recognition and respect that it now has. But in fighting hard and winning in so many areas, there’s a danger of continuing to fight against those who would otherwise be your allies and/or those who are innocent and do not want to fight. This is a legitimate area of concern. Listening carefully to the advocates of same-sex marriage, the most concerning thing is their lack of empathy for those who disagree. When Christians are being hateful towards people in the LGBT community, at least you can say “Your own Scriptures tell you to love your neighbours and to love your enemies!” However, for most people on the other side of the debate, there are no equivalent Scriptures. If we continue to see people who aren’t convinced about same-sex marriage as bigoted or homophobic, what exactly will limit the marginalisation of these people in society?