Friday, 7 February 2014

Same Sex Marriage, Civil Rights, and the Necessity of Public Debate

I have often spoken (although not previously in this blog) to the ongoing debate about same sex marriage. And I've always regarded myself as being on the side of the good guys. Yes, I would say, obviously a gay person should have the same rights as every other person. No, I would say, one couple's marriage can't affect another couple's marriage (provided everyone behaves himself, but that's another story.) And I've never questioned my basic premise that the argument itself was a good thing. I've always felt that the debate, like that about black people's rights, would, and ought to, continue until we as a society got our act together and stopped discriminating against random groups of people.

But I've recently been forced to question this. In a very moving speech, which can be found  here,  this man raises the interesting question of whether it is even appropriate for the debate to be taking place.

First, of course, I had some prejudices of my own to overcome. I'm pretty sure I'm not homophobic, but one can be prejudiced in many ways. In my case, I found I had to mentally kick myself for marvelling that a person with enormous, peroxide hair and a huge padded bosom, dressed like Dolly Parton on a bad day, was capable, not only of having penetrating insights, but of expressing them articulately. It's a wakeup call for me, not to judge people by their outfits, as I am all too often guilty of doing. Mind you, there is some justification for it, and I'll discuss that later, in another post. Anyway, in the instant case, this man, identified in the article as Panti Bliss, raised the question of whether it is even appropriate for there to be discussion about whether one section of society should have civil rights. He reports that he feels oppressed by the debate. By the fact that I, and people like me, feel we have the right publicly to express views about whether he, and people like him, have a right to be treated fairly and equally.

This made a great impression on me, and I've thought a lot about it, but in the end I find that, with the greatest of respect, and sympathy, for Mr Bliss, I must differ.

Of course, on the surface, it shouldn't be appropriate for this debate to be taking place, any more than it is appropriate today to be arguing about whether black people should have to sit at the back of the bus. If everyone were treated fairly by our law, it wouldn't be an issue, and no one would be talking about it except a few mad people who would be identifiable by that very fact as hard core bigots.

I am reminded of an incident, many years ago, when my dog caught his dewclaw on something and ripped it half off. It had to be cut, and cutting it was going to cause him agony, if only for a moment. I hated the fact that he was hurt, and I hated the fact that I was going to hurt him some more. But it had to be done, because the cold fact was that the claw was ripped, and it was going to catch on things and cause him more pain, and it was already hurting him. It just had to be fixed.

Did I cut the claw? Yes, I did (well, I had the vet make a house call and do it, but I had plenty of money back then). It was the right and necessary thing to do. 

As with Fionn's claw, the cold fact is that everyone today is not treated fairly and equally by our laws. Homosexual people can get married, if they are prepared to deny their sexuality and marry someone other than the person of their choice. That in no way corresponds to the right, freely enjoyed and taken by granted, that a straight person has to marry whomever he likes (given consent by the other party).

This state of affairs doesn't just affect people who are prevented from marrying each other. It doesn't just affect gay people. It hurts all of us, every day, because we are forced to live in a society that isn't properly civilised. We all, every one of us, have a stake in this. And we need to fix it. And the pain that is caused in the process, such as Mr Bliss's feeling of oppression when he reads yet another letter to the editor in his morning paper, is, although regrettable, something which must be borne. Again, by all of us. Because at the end of the day, we are all living in this society together, and what hurts one of us hurts us all. The true debate is not really just whether gay people should be able to marry one another. It is whether we should all be able to marry whomever we like. Or sit where we like on the bus, or be airline pilots, or adopt children. It is about whether we are to move forward and be truly civilised, or whether we prefer to remain half-civilised techno-barbarians.

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