Gay rights are about more than marriage

  • June 1, 2015
Gay rights are about more than marriage

On the 23rd of May, Ireland announced that by a popular vote, gays and lesbians would be allowed to marry. Crowds in Ireland and around the world cheered this progressive accomplishment, a victory for gay rights and democracy. Op-eds instantly appeared in major news outlets emphasising how Catholic Ireland is, and presumably, how surprising it is that Irish people would vote for marriage. But how much of a victory is the referendum? And how surprising is the outcome?

In western democracies, legal marriage is not just government approval of a personal relationship. It's a whole set of legal rights and privileges that reduce taxes, allow benefit sharing, govern child custody, and much more. In the US, there are over 1,000 federal benefits to marriage, in addition to state, local and private employer benefits. In these countries, there is a clear advantage to being married and denying people access to marriage is clear institutional discrimination.

Plus, the Irish referendum does more than most gay marriage measures. First, it's a constitutional amendment, giving it more force and longevity than most laws and court decisions. Second, the wording makes sex irrelevant, stating that marriage is “without distinction as to their sex”.

This is an improvement over England and Wales, where the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act has three parts broken into 21 sections, with an additional 7 schedules, all tip-toeing around exactly how two men or two women may be married. There's no clear way forward for intersex and nonbinary people (those who might hold “gender x passports”), except new legislation. Further, a transgender person's spouse can veto their change in legal sex, because the sex of partners still matters in English and Welsh law.

So yes, the Irish referendum will make positive, material changes for many people, and these should be celebrated.

But hold on: did the majority literally just vote on the rights and access of a minority? This is the nightmare every US schoolchild is taught to fear. That's not to say the US is better than Ireland in this respect – Prop 8 made that clear. But as long as the majority votes for our rights, few are willing to question why the majority is allowed to vote on our rights at all.

But it passed! What's the problem? Well, marriage is the problem. It's no surprise that Irish voters support marriage: polls have said so since at least 2008. Marriage is widely respected. For those worried about “homosexuals” “living in sin” – i.e. having sex casually or promiscuously out of wedlock – marriage is one way to reform us into respectable people. The Catholic Church practically said as much: “It is only in the marital relationship that the use of the sexual faculty can be morally good. A person engaging in homosexual behaviour therefore acts immorally.” With adoption rights and reproductive technology, our marriages are even becoming procreative.

As I've written elsewhere, other LGBTQ issues are not nearly so popular or respectable. The majority isn't going to have a referendum on resources and protections for LGBTQ homeless youth, sex workers, immigrants and refugees, elderly in care, daily harassment, or mental and physical healthcare, even though these are all serious issues disproportionately affecting LGBTQ people because of their sexuality or gender identity. Nor is the majority likely to take action on the ways race and class intersect to produce diverse challenges within the LGBTQ community.

The LGBTQ community in Ireland and around the world cannot wait for referendums. We must claim for ourselves the rights, resources and protections we need. And we must do it, in the words of Jean-Paul Sartre and Malcolm X, by any means necessary, with or without popular support from the majority.

*Jeffrey Lockhart [2014] is doing an MPhil in Multi-Disciplinary Gender Studies. Follow him on Twitter: @jw_lockhart. A symbolic marriage cake in favour of allowing gay marriages in Italy not only to heterosexual couples but to lesbian and gay ones as well. Picture by Giovanni Dall'Orto, January 26 2008, and Wiki Commons Media.

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