Full equality often has to wait while mainstream opinion catches up

Opinion: Gay men and lesbians shouldn’t have to care whether Iona Institute members love them or not, writes Fintan O'Toole

What’s the difference between homophobia and an honest belief that it is OK for the law to discriminate against gay and lesbian couples? In the words of the cider ad, there’s nothing added but time. Over time – usually far too much time – mainstream opinion comes to recognise that honest beliefs once held by decent people were reprehensible, not because the people were bad, but because the beliefs were shaped by prejudice. This will happen, probably quite soon, with beliefs about sexual orientation.

The legal action taken by John Waters and members or patrons of the Iona Institute against RTÉ following comments made on the Saturday Night Show by Rory O'Neill/ Panti Bliss is in my view unpleasant. But it may in one respect be no bad thing. It has effectively outlawed accusations of homophobia. RTÉ's apology lays down a standard for public comment on issues around gay marriage: calling someone homophobic causes them "upset or distress" and we can't have that. I'm not sure this is a particularly good standard for public debate. Nevertheless, these are the new rules and they are not without their benefits.

The main benefit is that highlighted by the Iona Institute itself in its statement on the affair. It says that the point of the legal action was to ensure that individuals who oppose full legal equality for homosexual couples “do not constantly have their motives and intentions called into question”. Fair enough. Let’s all accept – as I do without reservation – that the motives and intentions of the Iona Institute, John Waters and the vast majority of those who oppose gay marriage are decent, humane and entirely genuine. They believe with complete sincerity that defining marriage exclusively as “the sexual and emotional union of a man and a woman” is very important for the good of society as a whole. They further believe that it would be a failure of moral duty on their part not to uphold that belief in public, even if it is unpopular.

So, fine – their “motives and intentions” are good and even brave. But here’s the real question: so what? When, throughout the benighted history of structural discrimination, have “motives and intentions” made the slightest difference to the questions of justice, equality and universal human dignity? Structures of inequality tend to begin with raw power – you are my slave because I’ve conquered you. But as they become “normal”, they are genuinely felt by those on the right side of the divide to be good and wholesome – you are enslaved because you are not fit to be free and need my benign control to stop you harming yourself.


Sincerity is as irrelevant here as malevolence – it simply doesn’t matter why people uphold structures of discrimination. Throughout history, decent, moral people have believed with complete sincerity that slavery is a moral good, that women are lesser beings who must be protected from their weakness by being obedient to men, that Jews should be confined to ghettoes, that the Irish are incapable of rational thought, that Catholics are unfit to live in democracies and so on.

Aristotle and Lincoln
This is true even of very great men. Aristotle thought slavery entirely natural. Abraham Lincoln thought for most of his career that when slavery was abolished blacks should be shipped out to Africa because they couldn't possibly live side by side with free whites. Does this make Aristotle and Lincoln bad men? No. It just makes them examples of highly moral and intelligent people who cannot escape inherited structures of discriminatory thought.

When those structures exist – and surely the Iona Institute would not deny that there is an inherited structure of discrimination against people whose sexual orientation is deemed to be outside the norm – being personally benign is neither here nor there. Before the law was changed in 1993, gay men were subject to penalties of up to life imprisonment for having sex. In reality, many of them encountered benign and humane police officers or judges who tried to ensure that the law was applied lightly if at all. Did this make the law any less obnoxious?

It’s good that most of those who oppose gay marriage love and respect and cherish individual gay people, though they should hardly expect a pat on the back for not hating their fellow citizens. But they need to recognise that that’s not enough. The whole point of the law is that it’s not about giving people equal status because you like them. It’s about freeing people from subjection to the arbitrariness of other people’s benevolence. Gay men and lesbians shouldn’t have to care one way or the other whether the members of the Iona Institute love them or not. Just as the rest of us shouldn’t measure the rights of our fellow citizens by what they get up to in bed.