Ireland’s referendum, however inspiring, is not a step forward for gay rights

The resources that are spent on a gay marriage referendum would be better used educating the public about homophobia, protecting LGBTQ youth from bullying, and the like

‘Ireland is nonetheless historic because this is the first nation in the world to enshrine the right of same-sex couples to marry into its Constitution by means of a popular referendum.’ Above, people  in Dublin reacting to results coming in from constituencies around Ireland. Photograph:  EPA/AIDAN CRAWLEY

‘Ireland is nonetheless historic because this is the first nation in the world to enshrine the right of same-sex couples to marry into its Constitution by means of a popular referendum.’ Above, people in Dublin reacting to results coming in from constituencies around Ireland. Photograph: EPA/AIDAN CRAWLEY

 

Gays and fair-minded people worldwide are rejoicing at the news that Ireland has legalised same-sex marriage. The news is widely noted as historic, but not for the reasons that many people think. Most reporting on Ireland, at least in the United States, highlights the paradox of an overwhelmingly Catholic society legalising same-sex marriage.

But there is nothing historic about that. Since Spain became the first Catholic-majority nation to legalise same-sex marriage, in 2005, at the time only the third country in the world do to so, after the Netherlands and Belgium, Catholic nations legalising same-sex marriage has become rather routine.

In fact, it is what we have come to expect. After Spain took the plunge in 2005, other Catholic-majority nations have followed: Argentina and Portugal in 2010, and Uruguay, Brazil, and France in 2013. Chile, Bolivia, Colombia and Ecuador all allow civil unions for same-sex couples, with benefits virtually identical to those of marriage. Brazil, by the way, is the world’s largest Catholic nation and the world’s largest same-sex marriage state.

Why Catholicism is proving so compatible with gay rights is a question that social scientists have yet to seriously ponder. While polling data from Pew and Gallop consistently show Catholics are more accepting of homosexuality than other religious groups, including Protestants, it is not self-evident why this is so. It is the case, however, that in most of the Catholic nations that have legalised same-sex marriage the moral and political authority of the Catholic Church had all but collapsed. In Ireland, this came as a result of a series of sex- and child-abuse scandals in the 1990s, and in Spain and in Latin America because of the church’s ties to bloodthirsty military dictatorships during the 1970s and 1980s.

These sordid associations have not only discredited the church, they have also accelerated secularisation and/or religious apathy in Catholic societies. In Spain, Argentina and Uruguay, only about a third of self-identified Catholics deem their faith an important part of their lives. More important, perhaps, a clear majority of Catholics do not put homosexuality on the same plane as other sins declared by their faith, abortion most notably.

Ireland is nonetheless historic because this is the first nation in the world to enshrine the right of same-sex couples to marry into its Constitution by means of a popular referendum. And therein rests the case for why Ireland’s referendum however inspiring, is not a step forward for gay rights. At least two arguments can be made against gay marriage referendums – a moral and a practical one.

Unseemly

As gay activists have argued for decades, there is something inherently unseemly about putting the civil rights of any group, especially a historically oppressed one, to a popular vote. Most people could not conceive of doing so to ethnic and racial minorities or even women. So what makes gay people deserving of this particular indignity? Prior to the Irish vote, more than 30 American states had held same-sex marriage referendums. Until 2012, all of them had ended in heartbreaking defeats for the gay community.

The point about the “immorality” of gay marriage referendums has been slowly making its way into mainstream politics and has, in fact, averted gay marriage referendums in other countries. In Argentina, when it seemed like same-sex marriage was on its way to becoming law, conservative legislators in a last-minute effort to derail the final vote proposed that the issue be put to the voters. But even though polls were suggesting that the issue would win in a landslide, President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, who led the fight for same-sex marriage, opposed the referendum on moral grounds by contending that “the rights of the minority should never the put to the whim of the majority”. In the end, same-sex marriage narrowly won a vote in the Senate making Argentina the first Latin American country to legalise same-sex marriage.

The practical argument against a gay marriage referendum has several anchors but they all point to the toll it takes on society, regardless of the outcome. This is a reason for why neither advocates nor foes of same-sex marriage should embrace “letting the people decide.” For the gay community, gay marriage referendums are extraordinarily costly, financially and otherwise. The resources that are spent on a gay marriage referendum would be better used educating the public about homophobia, protecting LGBTQ youth from bullying, and the like.

There is also the defamation of the gay community that gay marriage votes tend to bring along. A case in point is proposition eight, the same-sex marriage referendum that overturned California’s same- sex marriage law in 2008. That poll featured arguably the nastiest defaming campaign of homosexuals in US history, with ordinary gay folk depicted in TV and internet adverts and public demonstrations as paedophiles, perverts, and a menace to society. A negative outcome of a gay referendum is also extraordinarily difficult to undo, as shown by the current struggle for same-sex marriage in the US.

Poetic justice

In an act of poetic justice, the winners of proposition eight have fared worse than the losing side, and there is a warning in that lesson for those who see same-sex marriage referendums as a way to legitimise denying gay people their civil rights. As Americans’ views on gay marriage have shifted dramatically in favour of gay marriage in recent years, and state and federal courts have begun to overturn gay marriage referendums, finding them in violation of the 14th amendment of equal protection under the law, the winners of the proposition eight referendum are finding themselves cast as retrogrades and, worse yet, bigots.

Some are now asking the gay community to show generosity in their triumph, as in recent efforts by Christian conservatives to protect bakers, florists, and photographers from being forced to offer their services to same-sex marriage nuptials. Their line of defence amounts to “you have won the marriage battle let us now have this small concession.” Surely, both sides would be better off today if proposition eight had never happened.

We can take comfort that advocates of Ireland’s No campaign refrained from demonising gays. This was one the noblest aspects of the poll. It also augurs well for future reconciliation efforts, a point underscored by Archbishop Diarmuid Martin’s remarks in conceding defeat: “The church’s teaching, if isn’t expressed in terms of love – then it’s got it wrong.”

Omar G Encarnación is professor of political studies, Bard College and author of Out in the Periphery: Latin America’s Gay Rights Revolution, forthcoming from Oxford University Press

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