For the last few years, it’s been known that we will have a referendum on whether gay and lesbian couples can marry in this country. I’ve generally been cautiously optimistic, believed that with a good campaign, we will win this. I trust in the fundamental decency of the Irish people, when asked to consider this, will think of those they know, and give us the same chance to marry as others have.
Till this week. This was never going to be an easy campaign. Now we see it’s not going to be a fair campaign. Rory O’Neill spoke honestly on the Saturday Night Show about how media commentary is still one of the few areas he regularly witnesses speaking in a discriminatory way towards gay people. Let’s not forget that in the article about gay priests by Breda O’Brien which he referred, she claimed Roman Catholic doctrine on gay people (that we are intrinsically disordered towards an objective moral evil) is fair enough because they view gay relations in the same way as lying or gluttony, while not hating those who lie or overeat.
Someone who groups gay relations with these other traits should expect their motives questioned when they proceed to argue that we should be denied the chance to marry or raise children. Or similarly John Waters, who assumes we are engaged in a massive plot to bring down marriage because of envy, should not expect anyone to think that he thinks of gay people in the same way as the rest of the population. To question our motives, to think the time someone like myself has spent on this cause is about anything other than a hope that I might marry, and that any two who find that happiness in each other can do the same. And I will wonder about an institute which is reckless as to the relevancy of a study it cites in a proposal (which was otherwise poorly-referenced) to the constitutional convention to argue against our equality.
Rory O’Neill’s analysis was sophisticated. It was O’Connor who raised the word homophobia, and O’Neill then considered how prejudice can exist within us, to a greater to a lesser extent, and that it is something that we need to be aware of within ourselves. Someone who is “spending so much of [their] life, devoting energies to writing things, arguing things, coming on TV to do anything to try and stop people achieving what they think they need for happiness” does need to take the time to consider if what they are promoting is properly something they can stand by.
All of the material that Rory O’Neill challenged is in the public sphere. Anyone can read the articles Breda O’Brien, John Waters or David Quinn write week on week in the two bestselling daily newspapers and make their assessment. They can each respond in these columns if they wish. I fail to see how the comments on the Saturday Night Show could “injure their reputation in the eyes of reasonable members of society”. All they tell us is the assessment by a prominent gay activist of the journalistic and lobbying work of individuals mentioned. Someone might read their work in a differently in light of O’Neill’s assessment, but it could not be his comments that cause any injury to their reputation. To my mind, this is before we consider the defence of honest opinion, provided in section 20 of the Defamation Act 2009. (Again, ultimately I’ll defer to those with more legal knowledge; perhaps Brian Barrington, whose open letter was widely distributed yesterday.)
What followed was a shameful sequence from RTÉ, which bear repeating: action was taken against RTÉ and Rory O’Neill by members of the Iona Institute and by John Waters; the section of the interview was removed, with an odd reference in the explanation of it to the unfortunate death of one of their colleagues, despite the fact that he was not named and that the death occurred after the interview; Brendan O’Connor read an obsequious apology, which sounded as if was drafted by the staff of Iona; and RTÉ paid damages to the Iona Institute.
The term Orwellian may be overused, but as the use of political language to describe exactly the opposite of what it means, the line in the apology “It is an important part of democratic debate that people must be able to hold dissenting views on controversial issues” in explaining why they censored a guest and paid damages to those who didn’t like his comments fits the description perfectly. Iona also talk without any sense of irony of O’Neill attempting to bring the debate to an end, while they are the ones who have spent the past 12 months sending solicitors’ letters to their harsher critics.
While I’m sure Iona are delighted to have some more money for their campaign against equality, I don’t think this was mainly about cash. This will have a chilling effect on RTÉ scheduling over the next year and a half. They will be much more cautious about when and how they have outspoken lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender guests on air. This will lead to our lives being discussed only from the perspective of a live, controversial debate. Instead of treating the fullness of our lives. This is why I am now much more concerned for the result, if it will take place with terms of debate set by the Iona Institute.
It’s trivial to say it, but most of our lives are just plain ordinary, including our romantic lives. But homophobia is unfortunately still part of our lives. Far much less so than it was, and to a rapidly decreasing degree. But it exists. I’m lucky to have experienced relatively little, but I have in my time heard homophobic comments, even from people I’ve been friends with, and not always had the guts to call them up on it. I know people have experienced much worse. There is still homophobic violence or verbal abuse. This is one of the aspects of why next year’s referendum result matters. Even for those who may not wish to marry, or for young people who are many years from even considering marriage, it matters. For as long as the state continues to treat us differently, others will take the opportunity, consciously or subconsciously, to do the same. Conversely, a strong vote in favour of equality will surely quicken the pace of the decline of homophobia as an acceptable prejudice.
So yes, our focus ahead of the referendum will be on the happiness we hope for from marriage, to do so just as our parents could, for the same reasons as anyone else would. But we can’t ignore or sideline the context of a legacy of prejudice against us and the problem with homophobia, however softly spoken.
Let’s be honest: The gay marriage debate is nearly over.
In the Los Angeles Times last week, David Blankenhorn, President of the Institute of American Values, opened with these words to write again about his personal journey. He was one of the witnesses who spoke in defence of Proposition 8 in its original court hearing in 2010, and a long-term leader of those who were against. Between his institute and where he places his emphasis in his arguments, such as on family stability and the effect of absent fathers, he brings his namesake to mind, David Quinn, Director of the Iona Institute.
Yet last year, David Blankenhorn wrote in the New York Times, ‘How My View on Gay Marriage Changed’. He did not depart from his core understanding of marriage as ‘the planet’s only institution whose core purpose is to unite the biological, social and legal components of parenthood into one lasting bond’. But the debate on gay marriage did not pan out as he initially expected, nor did it have the effect of strengthening an understanding of heterosexual marriage. In that context, comity matters, he said,
Sticking to one’s position no matter what can be a virtue. But bending the knee a bit, in the name of comity, is not always the same as weakness. As I look at what our society needs most today, I have no stomach for what we often too glibly call “culture wars.” Especially on this issue, I’m more interested in conciliation than in further fighting.
As he came to see it, maintaining his opposition did not help the conversation he believed was most important about marriage, and began to realise that these discussions can perhaps best take place while accepting that gay couples are living together and raising children,
We try in political debate to maintain a level of goodwill between those who hold different but legitimate points of view. Sometimes it is easy to get caught up in the back and forth of debate, it is important to remind ourselves that usually all sides do mean well.
But while that might be true of contests between parties in elections, or of a referendum campaign such as on a European Union Treaty, there are opinions on some issues that must try our patience, when it is our very lives and personal relationships and the value of someone as a parent that is questioned. And from now on those in positions of influence who carelessly condemn those whose sexual orientation or gender identity places them in minority are going to be called on this. Two days before the convention convened, Una Mullaly wrote in The Irish Times in response to her friend Buzz O’Neill who was beaten up on George’s Street for being gay. She challenged the idea of balance in the media, the way in which the media feels that because it is a matter of constitutional debate, an advocate of equality must be matched against an opponent,
The main problem with how the Irish media frames the debate is around a skewed view of what ‘balance’ is. ‘Middle Ireland’, the ‘silent majority’, the ‘mainstream’, gay people are told, are not ready for something so drastic as equality. I don’t know about you, but I never actually hear that middle ground. What I hear again and again is yet another articulate gay person trying to hold their temper while they are subjected to ignorant and juvenile arguments. And I hear an opposing view, generally one from the far out end of Catholicism, blustering about children’s rights (which Civil Partnership denies, thank you very much), and trying desperately to fight against equality with arguments based on their own personal belief systems or grievances. I don’t hear middle Ireland.
Then we had the Convention itself, a great day with 79 votes to 18 in favour of amending the constitution to read that the state shall enact laws providing for marriage for same-sex couples. Though the result shouldn’t have been surprising as it reflected most of the recent opinion polls on this question, it was more meaningful for having followed a weekend of deliberation and considered discussion. After that, the response of some of the leading opponents was not just to say that the only poll that matters is the one on the day, but to criticise the process they had taken part in, as seen first with Sen. Rónán Mullen tweeting less than an hour after the result was announced:
Then David Quinn blogged about the result, ‘Ireland a step closer to rejecting the value of motherhood and fatherhood’. What stood out for me here was his criticism of Frances Fitzgerald, ‘One of those politicians was Children’s Minister, Frances Fitzgerald. It is truly an astonishing turn of events when a minister for children is willing to sign away a child’s right to be raised by a mother and a father.’ He is not simply accepting her views as an alternative conclusion, but one that is obviously anti-child. Just as his fellow Iona Institute patron Breda O’Brien was to do days later, when she wrote in Saturday’s Irish Times, he ignores entirely the contributions on the Saturday of the convention, which he was there to witness, of the real life of children headed by same-sex couples. Watch Conor Prendergast and Clare O’Connell, talking about their family lives, both raised by lesbian couples (at 23:30):
or watch Colm O’Gorman, talking the conventional life he leads, raising two children, with the man he has married (at 38.30):
David Quinn talks about burden of proof. I would argue that the burden of proof is on those who claim this country should not allow these families to be recognised as married. What possible reason could there be for denying this in law?
Iona and their claims of research
This is before we delve into the controversy of the research the Iona Institute claimed on their side. As has been well documented, their submission to the convention was misleading as they quoted a single piece of research written in 2002, from Child Trends, ‘Marriage from a Child’s Perspective: How Does Family Structure Affect Children, and What Can We Do about It?’. The section from the Iona Institute submission read,
The social sciences confirm what every known society in the world has known instinctively, namely that marriage between a man and a woman is uniquely beneficial to society and to children. This is the case even though some individual marriages may be dysfunctional and harmful to children (as can any other type of family).
One of the most important child research organisations in the United States is Child Trends, which is centrist in its politics and ideological outlook.
It produced a paper in 2002 called ‘Marriage from a Child’s Perspective: How Does Family Structure Affect Children and What Can We Do About It?’
This summarises what the social sciences have to say about the matter (emphasis added).
The summary is as follows: “Research clearly demonstrates that family structure matters for children, and the family structure that helps the most is a family headed by two biological parents in a low-conflict marriage…There is thus value in promoting strong, stable marriage between biological parents.” A great deal of additional material is available that attests to this fact.
A reasonable person reading the Iona Institute submission would assume that by the matter, the quoted study discussed same-sex parents. There is in fact no reference either to same-sex parents, or to adoption or assisted reproduction by heterosexual couples. It is a comparison between instances where parents are married on the one hand, and single parents and step-parents on the other. A very similar study from 2003 by Mary Parke for the Center for Law and Social Policy, ‘Are Married Parents Really Better for Children? What Research Says About the Effects of Family Structure on Child Well-Being’, explains such a conflation in its first endnote,
The reference to biological parents is to distinguish between biological/adoptive parents and step-parents. Most studies that include data on adoptive parents include them in the biological parent category. Adopted children have very similar outcomes to children raised by both biological parents.
The Iona Institute is not the first anti-equality group to claim the Child Trends research as an argument on their side. Earlier this year, the House Republicans cited it in their brief against repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act, and Child Trends intervened there. Tired of this constant quotation out of context, they added a statement to the online version of the study, as can be seen in the link above,
Note: This Child Trends brief summarizes research conducted in 2002, when neither same-sex parents nor adoptive parents were identified in large national surveys. Therefore, no conclusions can be drawn from this research about the wellbeing of children raised by same-sex parents or adoptive parents.
I wrote to Child Trends to let them know that their research was cited by both the Iona Institute and the Irish Catholic Bishops Conference, sending links to their submissions, after reading these, Child Trends felt it was appropriate to write a formal letter to the Convention. David Norris raised this in the Seanad,
After a lengthy Twitter exchange, in which I engaged myself, beginning with the persistent Paul Moloney:
David Quinn attempted to backtrack on what he meant by the citation, to claim that the study showed there was not enough research on the question of same-sex parenting. It doesn’t, because it was not the subject in question. Or at least, no more than citing a study of Afghanistan since 2001 shows that there is not enough research on Iraq since 2003. There is plenty of research on this question, as documented by several professional medical, psychological and sociological associations, none of which indicates any reason for concern about the implications of same-sex parents. It just happens that for whatever reason, it is not a question Child Trends have ever studied. What is relevant is that it was after reading the submissions that Child Trends felt their work was misrepresented, and felt it incumbent on them to write to the convention. This has also been well documented and commented on blogs Geoff’s Shorts, Bock the Robber, in Skeptic Ink by Humanisticus, and in Eile by David Gormley. All worth reading if you have the time.
‘Sick and tired…’
How the Iona Institute misrepresented research is something of a moot point, after the convention voted clearly in favour of equal marriage, and by a somewhat stronger margin on 81 to 12 in favour of legislation to account for same-sex parenting. But it is indicative of their tactics and methods, which will be reformed come the campaign. Though they have defended its use in recent weeks, I’d be very surprised to see them quote the Child Trends research come the referendum campaign. But we’re not putting up with it any more. There has been a clear expression from different commentators to call things as they are. We had Colm O’Gorman, the day after the Convention,
Then Colette Browne wrote in the Irish Examiner, ‘Legislating for same-sex marriage will reflect changing face of families’,
THE insidious subtext of the argument against same-sex marriage is that children, currently being raised by gay and lesbian couples, are harmed by the experience. …
The argument against marriage equality today — that straight marriages will somehow be devalued if the constitutional definition of the institution is changed — is just as nonsensical. The right to marry one’s partner should be not be determined by race or creed or sexual orientation but is a basic human right that should be offered to every citizen.
Legislating for same-sex marriage, contrary to hyperbolic claims from some quarters, will not consign the role of mothers and fathers to a PC scrapheap, but will merely reflect the changing face of families in the 21st century.
And we had Carol Hunt in the Sunday Independent, ‘You’re not a bigot for refusing to accept intolerance’, talking about the process of Enlightenment,
Slavery as practised in the 18 and 19th Centuries would be anathema to us today, yet banning it was considered radical, dangerous and immoral when first agitated for. Natural law seemingly had decreed that black people were lesser beings than whites. Later this changed to equal but different.
Similarly women were denied the vote because it was argued that they were rationally inferior. And practising homosexuals were charged as criminals. Yet today, as part of our emancipatory journey, the majority in Ireland support same sex marriage. This is indeed moral progress.
We are now moving to a situation where the view that gay couples should be denied the opportunity to marry just as anyone else is being treated closer to how denying women the vote was in the 1920s. We will call prejudice what it is, disentangle the obfuscations and evasions of the opposition. This is not likely to be a pleasant campaign. But we are ready for it. And we are going to win.
From members of both government parties, I found something depressing about the stances they adopted on the Wildlife Bill. On the part of the Greens, given all they have agreed to since going into government, was this so much more important than taking a stance against NAMA or the continued aid to Anglo-Irish, or other such issues, to take the example of cystic fibrosis mentioned by Prof. Brian Lucey in a letter to Saturday’s Times? Equally, on the part of backbench Fianna Fáil TDs, what made protecting this hunt so much more of a cause to speak up and question government policy than many other issues, as Vincent Browne argued yesterday in the same paper. It is because of their priorities on issues like this that I would feel that the Greens are not the ideal coalition partner during an economic, fiscal and banking crisis.
But because of a bill will pass its final vote in the Dáil later today, despite all that, at the next general election, I will cast my fourth preference, after the likely three Fine Gael candidates, for the Green Party, such as it will remain in Wicklow. After reading David Quinn in the Independent on Friday and Breda O’Brien in the Times on Saturday, I warmed more to the Greens. There are many other issues which I would disagree with them on, such as on GM food, touched on by Quinn. But on certain cultural issues, I stand where they do. What sort of mentality is to describe John Gormley’s of the Roman Catholic Church’s contribution to the debate on civil partnership as “kicking an institution when it is down”, as O’Brien does? Badly phrased on Gormley’s part, a church has as much right as I do to comment in the public sphere, but while the institution still exercises the influence on curriculum in more than 90% of primary schools, and while those in the hierarchy who knew of crimes committed by priests against children still hold positions of influence, that institution is not down.
The Green Party have secured the Civil Partnership Bill, which should become law later this year. It is by no means a perfect bill; not only does it seem a little backward to introduce only civil partnership when to date seven other European countries have allowed gay couples to marry, but it has considerably fewer guarantees and protections than the Civil Partnership Act which the United Kingdom introduced in 2005. I am not convinced that this is the best we could have got constitutionally, but I could believe that it might be the best that could have been achieved politically. Without the Green Party in this government, even these protections in this bill would not have been introduced this year, and I will give that credit where it is due.