Charge of homophobia is being misused in equality debate
Opposition to concept of same-sex marriage does not make people homophobic
Rory O’Neill as Panti Bliss: his Noble Call at the Abbey Theatre has attracted more than 230,000 views. Photograph: Matt Kavanagh
In Tuesday’s Irish Times, Fintan O’Toole posed a question: even if the opponents of gay marriage in Ireland have noble motives, then so what? His opinion piece is well-argued but, in the context of the Noble Call delivered by Rory O’Neill (aka Panti Bliss) at the Abbey Theatre, it must prompt the question: so what? This is because it completely skirts around O’Neill’s core allegation: that to oppose gay marriage is to be homophobic.
I find myself on the side of the “straight commentators” O’Neill condemns. By claiming the right to be able to define what is homophobia, O’Neill is claiming the right to ascribe motives to people irrespective of whether those motives actually exist or not.
Homophobia, like charges of racism or anti-Semitism, in its more narrow contemporary context carries with it an implicit motive – a hatred of or prejudice towards gay people. Some prefer a broader definition: any actions that differentiate between people on account of sexual orientation must be homophobic, just as any actions that differentiate between people on account of race must be racist.
But if we look a little more deeply, such a definition becomes more problematic. What of affirmative action programmes? They differentiate on account of race.
Are they racist? Those on the right often allege yes; people on the left deny this on the basis that they are not motivated by animus towards white people, but rather a concern about the opportunities available to minorities who have historically been oppressed.
And that’s why you can’t have it both ways, and why ultimately motive matters.
It is motive that makes someone or their actions homophobic, racist, anti-Semitic or whatever. Just because you do not like, or disagree with, or indeed are offended on the grounds of your sexuality, race or creed by something somebody says or does, that does not automatically make them homophobic, racist or an anti-Semite.
They may just be stupid, insensitive or scared of change. The essence is motive, not result.
Motives vs beliefs
In the United States, drawing parallels between the campaign for marriage equality and the campaign against anti-miscegenation laws in the south that culminated in the perfectly named supreme court decision of Loving v Virginia is both powerful and attractive.
It is undeniable that the motive of most who supported laws against interracial marriage was a racist one: a supremacist notion that white people marrying people from ethnic minority races was undesirable. But it does not follow on from this that everyone who opposes marriage equality for gay men and women does so because of an animus towards them.
It is accepted that in Ireland a constitutional change will be necessary before same-sex marriage can be legislated for, but can it credibly claimed that, in legislating for civil partnerships, the last government was being homophobic?
(Disclaimer: I am in a civil partnership).
It has sometimes been alleged by the nuttier fringes of the right wing that “gay marriage” (or as we call it in our household “marriage”) will lead to bestiality and polygamy. As has been pointed out by people far wittier than me the first claim has about as much logic as claiming that granting the vote to women would lead to it being given to dolphins.
But what about the second claim? Often marriage equality advocates simply retort that gay marriage and polygamy have nothing to do with each other. However, it is an undeniable fact that allowing two people of the same sex to marry each other is a significant (but welcome) departure from how the legal institution of marriage has been understood since the modern world came into being.
Polygamy (or more specifically polygyny – one man having multiple wives) has a long-standing historical pedigree; indeed, its advocates could even cite the Bible as evidence of its desirability should they so want or, in Ireland, draw upon Gaelic Brehon law to support an argument that it is a feature of Irish culture.
However, there are very strong arguments against polygamy/polygyny: 1. It is fundamentally inegalitarian; 2. It is inherently oppressive towards women; 3. It undermines the legal guarantees that marriage is intended to provide to surviving or divorced spouses and would put an inequitable burden on the State.
For these reasons I am against polygamy. I have no fear of nor ill-will, prejudice, antipathy or hatred towards those who wish to marry more than one person (though I wouldn’t fancy it myself), but I do think that polygamy ought not to be permitted by law.
Does that make me a polygamophobe? Or do I just hold certain beliefs about what the legal institution of marriage should or should not be?
I happen to believe that the legal arguments against civil polygamy are strong ones, and the arguments against civil gay marriage are exceptionally weak (being mostly religious), no matter how earnestly held and genuine they are. But has our society reached a point where having weak arguments makes you a bigot, but having strong arguments means you are not?
That is why I think O’Neill’s rousing call is flawed. He ascribes to himself as a gay man the right to attribute nefarious motives to other people’s actions. He is wrong to do so. Homophobia is a synonym for anti-gay bigotry.
Some who oppose marriage equality certainly are homophobic, but it does not follow that opposing marriage equality means you are homophobic.
The charge of bigotry is a powerful one, and to wantonly throw it around cheapens and weakens it.
This is not to criticise the eloquence, or indeed the message, of most of O’Neill’s speech. It was beautiful, clear and moving. His exposition of what it feels like to be oppressed as a gay man was the clearest I have ever heard, and certainly struck a chord.
But if everyone who opposes marriage equality is homophobic, then it follows that everyone who opposes polygamy is an anti-polygamist bigot.
I don’t accept that label.
Chris Connolly is a writer and historian. He blogs as “A Yellow Guard”