Why the defeat of marriage equality in Maine matters here
This Tuesday, the voters of Maine repealed the decision of their legislature to allow gay couples to marry by voting Yes to Proposition 1. This is a disappointing decision, but not just because of the principles of the case. Those interested in politics might take sides in elections and issues in other countries, but in most cases on a small scale, it’s only a matter of preference, rather a belief in the effect it will have on them. But with an issue like this, the development in other countries matters here in Ireland and elsewhere. I think it’s inevitable that at some point, whether in five or thirty years, that there will be no restrictions on gay couples marrying. But the more other countries and states there are allow this, the sooner it will happen. We tend to catch up a little late on certain issues here after they have become a trend elsewhere.
As things stand, The Netherlands, Belgium, Canada, Spain, South Africa, Norway and Sweden all allow gay couples to marry, with the change in law occurring variously since 2001. In the United States, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Vermont, Iowa and New Hampshire do. The most significant of these is Iowa, outside of the traditionally more liberal states of New England. But in all cases where it has been put directly to the people, the electorate have opposed equality.
Personally, I dislike the idea of deciding people’s rights by a vote of the majority. But it is still perhaps time to stop and realize that however much this might be seen in terms of rights and equality, there are large numbers of people for whom it does not make sense that marriage should be anything other than a union between a man and a woman, however dictionaries might now define it. It’s difficult to know what it will take to change people’s mind on this, or how long it will take. But the political approach should take this into account.
What needs to be addressed is the question of how this affects children. The Yes to One campaign in Maine used an interview with a couple from Massachusetts, which had previously been used successfully by the Yes to Eight campaign in California, in which their son found out about homosexuality through a fairy tale read in class.
While I wonder about whether young boys would have any interest in reading lovey-dovey stories about princes and princesses, that would be my only reason to be cautious about a teacher reading such a story in class. Ultimately speaking, yes, if gay couples can marry, it would have to be mentioned in schools. Not in any orchestrated, “Now we’re going to talk about gay people” way, just as something that exists in society. Increasingly children will hear of prominent gay figures mentioned in the media, possibly referring to their husband or wife, while not referring to any big gay-specific issue. If a child were to ask his teacher about this, and is told, “Yes, they’re married”, they would probably just go back and play with their friends and not give it much thought other than that, where if the teacher were to say “I’m not allowed talk to you about that”, they would inevitably be intrigued. Where equality exists in law, there is no real reason to prohibit discussion about it. As to their son, chances are he won’t turn out to be gay, and if he does, something his teacher read to him in second grade will not have been the cause. So some of this problem, and of opposition to allowing gay couples to marry in general, is still due to the nature-nurture confusion about the issue.
Speaking of the defeat of Proposition 1, I would have to agree with those such as Andrew Sullivan who laid some of the blame for the result with President Barack Obama. During his campaign for presidency, he stated clearly speaking to Pastor Rick Warren that he believes “marriage is a union between a man and a woman”, and that he further believes that it is a sacred because of its religious origins.
Opponents of marriage for gay couples have used that quote on every occasion since, and it is gold dust from their point of view. It allows those who see themselves as moderate or liberal in many respects to oppose marriage equality, given that the man dubbed the most liberal President ever (though that is mostly due to his economic positions) feels that way. He did oppose Prop 8 in California, albeit it from the classical conservative stare decisis perspective. But some of that may have simply been political, to speak on both sides of the issue during the campaign. He claimed that he would be a fierce advocate for gay rights, that he would repeal Don’t Ask Don’t Tell (prohibiting gays from serving openly in the army, which led to the dismissal of an Arabic translator earlier this year) and the Defense of Marriage Act (prohibiting the recognition at a federal level of gay unions as marriage), but he has failed to show any signs of movement on either. In this, he is letting down a group of Americans whose activists don’t feel they can turn elsewhere politically for support.