Wednesday, 5 February 2014

Panti's In A Twist

The liberal blogosphere, Facebook and Twitter in Ireland (and indeed further afield) have been ablaze these past few days, following Rory O'Neill's impassioned and stirring speech after the curtain-fall of the Abbey Theatre's The Risen People last Saturday night.  O'Neill (in the guise of his stage persona, Panti Bliss) gave a deeply personal and rousing exposition of the oppressive nature of homophobia, both internalised and external, and derided the Irish commentariat (and RTÉ in particular) for depriving him, as a gay man, the right to define what is and is not homophobic.  It was certainly one of the most powerful pieces of public speaking heard in Ireland in many years.  However, there remains one fundamental problem: O'Neill was fundamentally wrong in his key conclusions.

The background to Rory's 'Rousing Call', as it has been labelled is this: in early January he appeared on an RTÉ chatshow and denounced a number of individuals who have been at the forefront of arguments against marriage equality in Ireland, David Quinn and Breda O'Brien of the right-wing Catholic Iona Institute, and journalist John Waters, as being homophobic.  These individuals made a complaint to RTÉ, and were issued with an apology and paid sums of money by way of apology.  This then provoked further complaint from liberals who were opposed to RTÉ's willingness to roll over in the face of legal action, (though if you understand Irish culture RTÉ's response should have come as no surprise: see here for my thoughts on what I consider to be comparable circumstances).  It also prompted the sort of criticism of O'Neill and his charges of homophobia from 'straight commentators' against which he railed in his 'Rousing Call'.

However, on this point I find myself on the side of the 'straight commentators' and believe Rory O'Neill is wrong and being unfair.  (Let's set aside any discussion of whether Quinn, Waters and O'Brien actually are homophobic; though I seem to recall the latter arguing on the radio that gay marriage was a bad idea because it would lead to young women having abortions in preference to the idea that their child might be adopted by a gay couple.  I'll leave you to decide what sort of motives such a warped logic stems from).

My problem is fundamentally this: homophobia, like charges of racism or anti-Semitism, in its more narrow contemporary context carries with it an implicit motive - a hatred of or prejudice towards gay people, people of other races or Jews.  Some prefer a broader definition: any actions that differentiate between people on account of sexual orientation must be homophobic, just as any actions that differentiate between people on account of race must be racist.  But if we look a little more deeply at the latter, such a definition becomes more problematic.  What of affirmative action programmes?  They differentiate on account of race.  Are they racist?  Those on the right often allege yes; people on the left deny this on the basis that they are not motivated by animus towards white people, but rather a concern about the opportunities available to minorities who have historically been oppressed.

And that's why you can't have it both ways, and ultimately motive matters.  It is motive that makes someone or their actions homophobic, racist, anti-Semitic or whatever.  Just because you do not like, or disagree with, or indeed are offended on the grounds of your sexuality, race or creed by something somebody says or does, that does not automatically make them homophobic, racist or an anti-Semite.  They may just be stupid, insensitive, scared or an asshole.  The essence is motive, not result.

In the United States, drawing parallels between the campaign for marriage equality and the campaign against anti-miscegenation laws in the South that culminated in the perfectly named Supreme Court decision in Loving v Virginia is both powerful and attractive.  It is undeniable that the motive of most who supported laws against inter-racial marriage was a racist one: a supremacist notion that white people marrying people from ethnic minority races was undesirable.  But it does not follow on from this that everyone who opposes marriage equality for gay men and women does so because of an animus towards them.  In the UK Tony Blair's Labour government brought in Civil Partnerships (declaration of interest: I am in one), which are legally about 99.9% the same as marriage, just with a different name.  Now, I am a firm believer that separate but equal is never equal, but can it credibly alleged that in legislating for Civil Partnerships, Tony Blair was homophobic?

Mildred and Richard Loving in 1967

It has sometimes been alleged by the nuttier fringes of the right-wing that gay marriage (or as we call it in our household 'marriage') will lead to bestiality and polygamy.  As has been pointed out by people far wittier than me the former claim has about as much logic as claiming that granting the vote to women would lead to it being given to dolphins.  But what about the second claim?

Often marriage equality advocates simply retort that gay marriage and polygamy have nothing to do with each other, but it is an undeniable fact that allowing two people of the same sex to marry each other is a significant (but welcome) departure from how the legal institution of marriage has been understood since the modern world came into being.  Polygamy (or more specifically polygyny - one man having multiple wives) has a long-standing historical pedigree; indeed, its advocates could even cite the Bible as evidence of its desirability should they so want, or in Ireland draw upon Gaelic Brehon law to support an argument that it is a feature of Irish culture.

Phil Collins, Mike Rutherford, and Alan Shatter.
However, there are very strong arguments against polygamy/polygyny.  In short they are: 1) it is fundamentally inegalitarian; 2) it is inherently oppressive towards women; 3) it undermines the legal guarantees that marriage is intended to provide to surviving or divorced spouses and would put an inequitable burden on the State.  For these reasons I am against polygamy.  I bear no fear of nor ill-will, prejudice, antipathy or hatred towards those who wish to marry more than one person (though I think they might be nuts), but I do think that polygamy ought not to be permitted by law.

Does that make me a polygamophobe?  Or do I just hold certain beliefs about what the legal institution of marriage should or should not be.  I happen to believe that the legal arguments against civil polygamy are strong ones, and the arguments against civil gay marriage are exceptionally weak (being mostly religious), no matter how earnestly-held and genuine they are.  But has our society reached a point where having weak arguments makes you a bigot, but having strong arguments means you are not?

So that is why I think Rory O'Neill's rousing call is flawed.  He ascribes to himself as a gay man the right to attribute nefarious motives to other people's actions.  He is wrong to do so.  Homophobia is a synonym for anti-gay bigotry.  Some who oppose marriage equality certainly are homophobic, but it does not follow that opposing marriage equality means you are homophobic.  The charge of bigotry is a powerful one, and to wantonly throw it around cheapens and weakens it.

This is not to criticize the eloquence, or indeed the message, of most of O'Neill's speech.  It was beautiful, clear and moving.  His exposition of what it feels like to be oppressed as a gay man was the clearest I have ever heard, and certainly struck a chord.

But if everyone who opposes marriage equality is homophobic then it follows that everyone who opposes polygamy is an anti-polygamist bigot.

I don't accept that label.

Do you?

UPDATE: Rory O'Neill gave a very interesting interview with Miriam O'Callaghan on RTÉ radio. It is worth a listen if you have half an hour.  I still don't agree with the central argument which is that to be against equal marriage you must be homophobic.  However, I do agree that whatever your motives, such a stance is oppressive towards gay people and it feels oppressive when experienced by gay people.  I think it is interesting, noteworthy and correct that his focus in the 'Rousing Call' was oppression, rather than reigniting the whole 'homophobia' argument. On that point, he and I are totally agreed: the majority does not have the right to tell an oppressed minority what does or does not feel oppressive.


Frank said...

Can you give me some non-homophobic reasons for campaigning against marriage equality?

Chris Connolly said...

How about: it's against the word of God? Or I don't like fundamentally altering a central societal institution?

eric stephan said...

Your second example is great. Your first one seems a little tricky... begs that one glance a bit longer at their rhetoric and see if their "word of god" directive is quite closely tied with (but allows them to veil) nastier "motives." But right, if someone honestly, and sympathetically, said "it's just the word of god, sorry," I agree

eric stephan said...

... with you.