Activists using 'homophobia' label as bullying tactic


It takes courage to champion traditional marriage, knowing it will unleash invective from alleged liberals, writes Breda O'Brien

ARE YOU now, or have you ever been, homophobic? Homophobia should mean an irrational fear or dislike of homosexuals. However, the definition has been expanded to cover any opinion that some supporters of gay marriage don't like.

Robert Jay Lifton, in his classic text on thought control in totalitarian China, discussed the "thought-terminating cliche" as a tactic to ensure conformity. He spoke of compressing "far-reaching and complex problems" into "brief, highly reductive, definitive-sounding phrases" that prevent real analysis. Homophobia has been reduced to just such a thought-terminating cliche.

By attributing any opposition to their views to homophobia, activists attempt to short-circuit engaging with the arguments. However, given that we do not live in a totalitarian regime, all it achieves is to undermine the effectiveness of the term where there is real anti-gay discrimination. It becomes merely a bullying tactic.

Senator Jim Walsh is one of the architects of a motion on marriage put before the Fianna Fáil parliamentary party. He commented that when an argument has merit, there is never a need to resort to personal attack. It is only when their arguments are weak that people resort to vitriol and intimidation.

Matt Cooper of the Last Word radio show asked Walsh if he was homophobic. No doubt the presenter would argue that the public has a right to know where people stand. It is interesting to analyse what kind of actions will lay you open to this "have you stopped beating your wife?" type of question.

The motion, signed by 26 members of the parliamentary party, is an attempt to balance the needs of all kinds of families with the need to protect the most pro-child institution we have - traditional marriage. The text says:

"That the Fianna Fáil parliamentary party calls on the Government to ensure when prescribing civil partnership legislation that they 'guard with special care' (article 41.3.1) the fundamental position of the family. It acknowledges that all forms of the family are entitled to help and support, but calls on the Government to continue giving special support, including unique financial and legal protections, to the institution of marriage because of its uniquely pro-child nature, thereby protecting the traditional family unit "as the necessary basis of social order and as indispensable to the welfare of the nation and the State' (article 41.1.2)."

It was Taoiseach Brian Cowen who acknowledged that it should not just be sent to the justice committee, but should be debated. During the debate, there was agreement that there is an obligation to address with fairness legitimate issues that cohabiting and gay couples face. There was also overwhelming support among the majority of members for the idea that the status and special position of traditional marriage should be maintained. Apparently, this is now sufficient to merit being asked if you are homophobic.

It would be convenient to dismiss the signatories and others who spoke in favour of the motion as a renegade rump: convenient, but wrong. It takes courage for a politician to champion traditional marriage, in the full knowledge that it will unleash invective from alleged liberals whose tolerance extends only to those who agree with them.

Both sides of this argument are motivated by important values. Gay activists believe they are being relegated to second-class citizenship if they are denied access to marriage. They are also concerned about the welfare of children, in that they want legal protection for children being parented by gay couples.

These concerns should not be lightly dismissed. The influential Colley report on domestic partnership acknowledges that the debate is driven by values such as equality, diversity, recognition, autonomy, privacy and the welfare of children. Crucially, though, it says none of these are absolute and must be balanced by the common good.

The report says: "The principle of equality involves treating persons in a similar situation similarly, unless differentiation is objectively justified." Are there objectively justified reasons to continue to support heterosexual marriage in special ways? I believe there are. Traditional marriage is supported by the State because it is widely acknowledged as the best place to bring up children.

Does the gender of parents matter? We are only having this debate because adults believe gender matters hugely. A lesbian or gay person would be deeply offended if it was suggested that they should just settle down with a person of the opposite sex. Yet the gender of parents is not supposed to matter to children at all. For adults to achieve alleged equality, some children will have the right to be reared by a mother and father, where possible, taken away.

Incidentally, Walsh was reared by a lone parent, his mother. He feels qualified to say the input of both genders is vital.

Of course children being parented by gay people have rights that must be vindicated. However, those include the right, where possible, to have a relationship with biological parents. Children in gay relationships may be the offspring of a previous heterosexual relationship, or of surrogacy or sperm donation, or because of the adoption by one partner under the guise of being single. All of these situations present challenges, and some are minefields where adult needs may be prioritised over children's needs.

In sperm donation, for example, often a decision is made to exclude the father from the child's life from conception.

Lesbian and gay couples involved in co-parenting children of previous unions are subject to the stresses and strains of any second union. Children often resent what they see as the usurping of a biological parent's role, even when the new partner is not gay.

No one is querying the ability of gay people to parent. There will be circumstances, such as abandonment by or death of biological parents, where parenting by a non-biological "social" parent, including a gay partner, is the best remaining option. These should be dealt with on a case-by-case basis, not by sweeping changes to our understanding of marriage.