Chakra Discussions

Same-gender marriages -- An unstoppable tide

by Ananda das

Posted July 11, 2003

Same-gender marriage is a state-sanctioned or civil marriage between two male or two female partners. Some countries are beginning to change their laws to permit such marriages. No religion is forced to endorse such marriages or civil unions, as many religions oppose them on principle, some partially or wholly endorse them, some attempt to ignore the issue, while others are bitterly polarized and are likely to undergo actual schism. Predictably, however, same-gender marriage has become a political hot potato, with some religious and conservative groups claiming to foresee the end of civilisation as we know it.

[Antony Porcino, an organic biochemist (left), and Tom Graff, director and curator of the civic Burnaby Art Gallery, exchange vows at Vancouver courthouse after a B.C. Appeal Court ruling gave legal sanction to same-gender marriages. Tim Stevenson of the United Church of Canada officiates. (Photo by Ward Perrin of the Vancouver Sun).]

Same-gender marriages are presently legal in Belgium, Holland, two Canadian provinces and the U.S. state of Vermont (which tries to appease the U.S. coalition of right-wing politicians and religious fundamentalists by employing the term "civil union" instead of "marriage"). The law changed recently to allow such marriages in both Ontario and British Columbia, as courts declared that the traditional definition of marriage was too narrowly drawn.

Similarly, courts in Alaska and Hawaii held that restricting weddings to opposite-gender couples was unconstitutional. However, the legislatures in both states soon enacted constitutional amendments overriding the court decisions. In contrast to the U.S., the federal government in Canada has promised to rewrite the marriage law so that, within a year, same-gender marriages will be legal in every Canadian province.

A few Canadian couples have started to take advantage of the court-ordered change in the law, by getting married in recent weeks. Because Canada is (so far) the only country to permit same-gender marriages without a residency requirement, non-Canadians are travelling to Ontario and B.C. to have their sometimes already-longstanding unions officially recognised with marriage certificates.

Toronto has seen a tourist boom of sorts: Americans coming to Toronto to get married -- welcome news for cash-starved Toronto, where tourism is down nearly 80 per cent because of fears of contracting the respiratory disease SARS.

In British Columbia, the province started issuing marriage licences to same-gender couples immediately after the July 8, 2003 decision of the B.C. Court of Appeal. "It's clearly a historic step," B.C. Attorney General Geoff Plant told the Victoria Times Colonist. "This is a significant change in the law. We were anticipating the [appeals court] result, and we wanted to make sure we were ready to respond [at Vital Statistics branches]."

Because Canada and the U.S. normally recognize each other's marriages, a few reactionary states have, however, passed laws denying the validity of same-gender marriages performed elsewhere.

Belgium has tried to prevent marriage tourism by only allowing marriages of foreign gay and lesbian couples if such a marriage would be legal in their home country. Holland is even more restrictive, only certifying a marriage if at least one partner lives in Holland. About one in every 28 marriages recorded in Holland is now a same-gender union.

Public opinion in North America generally endorses the trend towards permitting same-gender marriage, but this opinion is not always reflected among elected politicians. The struggle for more widespread recognition of marriage as a human right not to be restricted only to opposite-gender couples promises to be lengthy.

Insurance companies, to their credit, have been generally supportive of the rights of gay and lesbian couples for about ten years now, and no longer make restrictions as to who can be named as policy beneficiaries. However, same-gender couples have usually been denied the benefits of pensions, inheritance and favourable tax treatment accorded other married couples. Same-gender couples have faced artificial barriers to their being allowed to adopt children, although they are in no way incapable of offering a good, stable home situation and a loving, nurturing environment for foster children.

This is now changing in North America, as test cases citing the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms or the U.S. Bill of Rights reach the Supreme Courts in each land. Gradually, such rights are being extended to same-gender couples, just as they were previously extended to couples who had been living "common-law" (i.e., without benefit of civil or church marriage).

When common-law relationships end, courts and governments now require fair treatment of the lower-earning spouse (usually the woman), and children are no longer being stigmatised as "illegitimate", but accorded all the normal rights of other children born in officially recognised marriages. Similarly, courts and governments will be requiring divorcing same-gender couples to make a just division of matrimonial assets, and requiring the couples to consider the best interests of their children, if any.

Some opponents of the new liberalising trend suggest that expanding the definition of marriage would offend their traditional religious views. As already pointed out, however, each individual religious group will be able to continue maintaining its own criteria for marriage.

For example, the Catholic church has erected great barriers to divorce; Catholics whose marriages have broken down are forced to choose between petitioning for annulment with a contrived story of non-consummation or obtaining a civil divorce. If they wish to remarry, they may convert to another faith, generally Anglican-Episcopalian, or continue as Catholics but be denied Communion because the church refuses to recognise their new marriage.

Just as the Catholics do not consider valid a marriage not performed in a Catholic church, any denomination that maintains an objection to the rights of gay and lesbian couples may refuse to permit such marriages within their church. But there is no reason why such objecting churches should expect to force their viewpoint on the rest of the people, who may be of differing faiths, or agnostic or atheist. Most countries with a Catholic majority now ignore the official view of the Catholic church, and make some provisions for legal divorce. We live in more tolerant times now, and we need, all of us, to strive to get along.

Another occasional objection is the "thin edge of the wedge" argument that long-overdue recognition of gay rights to marriage will lead to demands for state recognition of polygamy or polyandry. U.S. senator Rick Santorum even worried that it might lead to acceptance of paedophilia or result in demands from farmers to marry their sheep.

These are examples of the "slippery-slope" fallacy and can readily be dismissed. Aside from a few men -- sexually rapacious rogue Mormons and some probably insane devotees deeply nostalgic for their concocted solipsist idea of Vedic life, there is simply no demand in North America for simultaneous marriage to multiple partners. Paedophilia inspires such universal loathing that we can be equally certain it will continue to be vigorously prosecuted. So let's not get ridiculous. As they say in South Carolina, and probably in Pennsylvania, too, "That dog won't hunt."

I would like to plead with devotees to give this issue some thought. Many of us will have heard some condemnation of gay and lesbian lifestyles, or become habituated to a fairly high level of homophobia, either through the general "background radiation" of social disapproval, through church sermons while growing up, through more or less ignorant talk-radio hosts, through lectures delivered by male temple leaders extremely insecure about their own masculinity or overtly misogynist, or perhaps through reading of bizarre Internet ravings by quite certifiable kooks.

We may have heard about an older disgraced "sannyasi" forcing himself upon a young boy and, from our disgust at this repugnant behaviour, we have formed some sort of inchoate generalised revulsion for gays and lesbians in general. This is, of course, totally unfair to the overwhelming majority of gays and lesbians who would never dream of assaulting anyone, much less a minor. Just as the great majority of heterosexual men would never have sex with an unwilling woman or underage girl, the great majority of the gay and lesbian community would never have sex with an unwilling same-gender person, whether adult or child.

If we really get to know our friends and extended families, most of us will discover we have gay and lesbian friends and relatives, especially if the climate of society becomes a little more tolerant, and people no longer feel ashamed or fearful to reveal their sexual orientation. As devotees, we need to take the next step, and vigorously challenge any temple speaker who attempts to promote homophobia.

We need to tell those devotees who just "haven't got the message" up till now that homophobia is simply unacceptable, whether in civil society or in the temple. Let us start to increase our tolerance and acceptance of devotees who have different orientations from ourselves, especially since scientists generally agree that gays and lesbians have their orientation from birth and, therefore, have little or no choice in the matter. Their only choice has been to hide or to reveal themselves.

It is a terrible thing to cajole a gay or lesbian person into a traditional opposite-sex marriage; neither partner is likely to be happy; it is hypocrisy; and it can predispose the secretly gay or lesbian partner to fall down by engaging in risky behaviour outside the marriage, with potentially dire consequences for the couple, such as sexually transmitted diseases, even AIDS, which never occur among committed, monogamous couples.

The most effective preacher is a good listener who knows well the person to whom he or she speaks of Krsna consciousness. Maintaining a helpful, empathetic and friendly approach to gays and lesbians is going to be far more productive in terms of preaching success than any amount of abstract, pious moralising or heavy-handed condemnation.

Some churches are beginning a serious discussion of gay and lesbian marriage rights. The United Church of Canada is unequivocally supportive.

I believe that, within ISKCON, we ought to begin a discussion on solemnizing same-gender marriages with temple ceremonies, just as we now celebrate opposite-gender marriages. I think it is the tide of history. We may fight it, some of us, like King Canute attempting to hold back the waters, but I believe most countries will have civil laws recognizing same-gender marriage.

If we have taken an early, progressive stand grounded in common decency, humanity and fellow-feeling for our gay and lesbian members, Sri Sri Radha Krishna will bless us all for truly bringing everyone together on a common platform of love of God, manifested, as Jesus put it, in how well we love one another.

Note: A book published last year by the University of Chicago Press has a thorough overview of progress in acceptance of same-gender marriage, with references to "registered partnerships" in Denmark, Norway, Sweden and Iceland. The book is by Yuval Merin, and is Called "Equality for Same-Sex Couples: The Legal Recognition of Gay Partnerships in Europe and the United States." ($US25.00, ISBN 0-226-52032-3, published 2002, 397 pages).