The Civil Partnership Bill is inadequate
The Dáil is today beginning debate on the Civil Partnership Bill, which would allow gay couples to register their partnerships. This is, I suppose, better than nothing, but it is not good enough. There would have been a time when this would have been acceptable, but not now in 2009, where mindsets and appreciation of the issues have changed.
Many years ago, as I recounted in a debate recently, gay people weren’t calling for marriage. They had found themselves cast off and rejected from society, and felt no choice but to create their own community. With the outbreak of the AIDS virus, people in general could no longer ignore the fact that many of their family, friends and colleagues were gay, and gay people themselves felt a desire to be integrated and accepted in the community as much as anyone else. This is a stylised version of events, but it was particularly in the last twenty years that the campaign for true equality took off.
True equality demands the right of gay couples to marry. If the state is to acknowledge the relationships of couples, it should not discriminate on the basis of the sex of the two partners. By acknowledging that gay couples merit recognition, but only in the form of civil partnership, the state is stating that they believe the love between a man and a woman is superior to that between two men or two women.
So what do we hear from those who oppose marriage equality? They claim that civil partnership grants all the rights of marriage, so what more would we want. Even if it did, the discrimination would exist in the refusal to grant the word, and particularly because of the constitutional recognition of marriage. What’s more, the Bill grants no recognition to the children of gay couples. There are cases now, more pertinent in the case of lesbian couples, where a child from a previous relationship is being raised by a couple. If the natural mother were to die, the surviving mother would have no legal rights to the child.
There has been the claim particularly promoted in recent years that marriage is not about couples at all, it is about children. Children are a natural part of the relationship between a man and a woman, but people generally don’t marry for children. I don’t mean in the case of unmarried mothers, where the father is still very much part of the family. In such cases, I believe marriage should be promoted, or at least not disincentivized, by the state. I mean that in cases where there are no children, a couple who do get married do so primarily for love, while they might look forward to raising children. This is obviously the case for those who for medical reasons can’t have children of their own, or particularly elderly couples. Even those who see marriage’s primary function to provide for children, acknowledge these exceptions, so why cannot they simply extend that privilege to gay couples? Those considering the welfare of children should also give a moment’s thought to the many gay children, for whom the normalization of gay relationships would lessen their adolescent anxiety, that they could have the same hopes for married family life as others, and reduce the likelihood of their being bullied in school.
Over time, new rights are discovered to exist as natural rights. Nothing in law and society is set in stone, and our views of social norms change slowly in line with evidence over time. The fact that Éamon de Valera had only the marriage between a man and a woman in mind when he wrote Article 41 of the Constitution of Ireland is not how law should be judged. A nice example of how law changed from what those who drafted it had in mind is how the Supreme Court of the United States decided in Brown v. Board of Education in 1954 by 9-0 to desegregate schools on the basis of the Fourteenth Amendment, ending the farce of separate but equal, despite the fact that those who drafted that Amendment in 1868 would clearly not have anticipated such a ruling. On the issue of marriage equality, the scientific understanding of homosexuality has changed over the past century, with the consensus now that it is a normal and immutable condition, however rare, rather than a psychiatric condition as a result of childhood experiences, as expostulated by Sigmund Freud. Now, as gay couples desire the comfort, stability, recognition and security of marriage as much as many others, there is no compelling reason it should not be granted.
If nowhere in the world was marriage between gay couples in place, it would still be no justification for not legislating for it here. But given that Belgium, Canada, the Netherlands, Norway, South Africa, Spain and Sweden have dropped any requirement that a married couple be of opposite sex, the Irish government should ask why the situation here is so different. Religious views should not be considered when drafting legislation in a republic, but it’s nice to be able to point to Catholic Belgium and Catholic Spain in that list. And of course, it was the most heavily Irish part of the United States, Massachusetts, that gay couples first received marriage rights.
In 2006, Anne Colley, a solicitor and former Progressive Democrat TD, delivered a report (pdf) to the Tánaiste and Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform Michael McDowell, on the best way to tackle discrimination for same-sex couples, and she found that only way to deal with question fairly would be to grant gay couple full and equal rights to marry. To Minister McDowell’s discredit, he sidelined the report, proposing only domestic partnership, which would grant no more recognition to gay couples than two siblings, and perhaps even two friends, who were living together in a financially dependent situation. It was from then, in part as a disappointed party member, that I realized how important it was that there should be full rights to marry.
Now we are presented with this bill. I believe it is only a matter of time before full marriage rights are achieved, there will only be so long this country can hold out, but I would far rather that happened today than several years from now. For my own part, I presume without thinking that I will get married, especially seeing how much it is taken for granted in the aforementioned countries and certain US states. I certainly have no desire for civil partnership. But there are many gay couples far older than me, for whom any benefit or recognition would be a great peace of mind. For this reason, I hope the Bill passes, in as strong a form as possible. But equally, I am glad to see the many gay activists protesting against the deficiencies of the bill. And from its enactment, it will hopefully be only a matter of time before it is clear that there is really no natural difference in fact between the love of any two people, and that the discrimination lessened but emphasized in this Bill will end.