Gay marriage ‘debate’ goes from bad to worse

The LGBT community need to get wise, says Sarah Carey

Recently I wrote a column here on foot of Fintan O’Toole’s description of opponents of gay marriage as bigots. I said that if the object of the exercise is to persuade people to change their minds, insulting them isn’t going to get you anywhere.

The swing behind the gay marriage movement in countries like America is the result of a strategic decision by its proponents to switch from screeching epithets at conservatives in favour of addressing their concerns. Gay marriage advocates showed how marriage between homosexuals delivers what conservatives want: a legally bound family unit. Then they made smart decisions like putting forward spokespeople who didn’t look like stragglers from a Gay Pride parade, but instead embodied what we might call ‘respectability’. This is a successful model based on precedents like Nelson Mandela, who learned Afrikaans in order to best persuade white South Africa to end peacefully its apartheid regime. Which it did. In other words, learning the language of your opponents works. Shouting abuse at them doesn’t.

Well, the gay marriage campaign obviously wasn’t listening, because things have gone from bad to worse.

I saw a transcript of the now infamous Saturday Night Show interview with Rory O’Neill aka Miss Panti. I’m not a lawyer but no qualifications were necessary for this judgement. If you call someone a homophobe it’s a slam-dunk libel. A homophobe is someone who fears or hates homosexuals. It is not fair to say that anyone who has reservations about gay marriage is a homophobe.

I know people who have absolutely no problem with homosexuals, and indeed admire the stable relationships they witness between them. They just can’t get their heads around redefining the word ‘marriage’. To them a marriage is a legal, emotional and religious contract between a man and a woman the purpose of which is to begin a new family. Though science has provided the means by which procreation is achieved outside of regular, heterosexual sex, I’m not going to judge anyone struggling to catch up with a concept that declares that two people of the same sex, armed with a turkey baster or an obliging opposite sex friend, can become legally entitled to do the same thing.

Although it’s happening anyway on the ground, changing the constitution is so profound, that lots of discussion about the meaning and consequence of this redefinition is absolutely essential. I think the change is inevitable but I recognise that it raises several weighty philosophical questions that affect not just gay couples but infertile straight couples, broken marriages, adoptions and assisted reproduction. We need to be able to talk about the consequences of the dramatically changed landscape for families, without being insulted.

RTE acknowledged that what O’Neill said about the members of The Iona Institute was libellous and so deleted the offending part of the interview from its website and wrote a few cheques. There was no other way of dealing with it.

But in response, the gay lobby, are claiming that this is a silencing of the debate on homophobia, and a large group protested in Dublin City Centre on Sunday. The LBGT Noise group who organised the protest, said gay, lesbian and bisexual people here continue to face prejudice and discrimination and need to be able to speak out about that. Well yes, of course they do. Who said they can’t?

No one! They’ve turned around the facts to present a version of reality that is utterly illogical. The O’Neill interview wasn’t cut because he spoke out about homophobia. It was cut because he conflated two separate things. He said that named specific people who were against gay marriage were homophobic. It was wrong. And stupid. If he’d said that some people who oppose gay marriage were homophobic, he’d have gotten away with it. But naming specific people?  Oh come on.

On the other hand, calling people who oppose gay marriage homophobic: what’s the purpose of that strategy? To make people afraid to speak out for fear of intimidation? Who’s doing the silencing here?

The LGBT community need to get wise.

Yes gay people have been the victims of abuse. For young men in particular, that can be physical. I understand that gay people are angry and impatient that this debate must be conducted. It might upset them to hear people argue against what they perceive as a natural right. That may lead them to get irritated and abusive. They might hate having to indulge the democratic process and they may despise their political opponents. But a national conversation on the consequences of changing the constitution is unavoidable, so they better get used to it. That majority in favour of gay marriage will slide away pretty quickly if the conversation turns into bad tempered abuse. The side that keeps the head will win the vote.