|Cartoon of Peter Robinson, Ian Paisley and other members of the DUP. Originally published on Slugger O'Toole.|
Debating marriage equality is debating the inevitable. The history of the West tells us that you cannot deny a minority community rights that a majority enjoy. The history of the West tells us that laws that stigmatise and marginalise a minority cannot stand.
Law after discriminatory law have been broken. Rights after rights have been spread. And at each stage the religious community are there to defend discrimination and oppose tolerance and pluralism. That is the lesson that needs to be shared as we face this challenge of bringing marriage equality to Northern Ireland. Namely: at each stage the religious will have you forget their previous failures in order to mask their present failure.
Let’s look at the example of Mr Humphrey Berkley who introduced in 1965 a Private Member’s Bill that would legalise homosexuality. The motion failed by the dissolution of the house. The bill was resurrected in 1967 by Lord Arran and met stern opposition.
Lord Ferrier argued against the Bill and argued for the criminalisation of homosexuality, saying in May 1966:
"I cannot see how a sin—and this act we are discussing is a hideous sin; I nearly said bestial, but beasts do not do it—is any more excusable morally because it is committed in private. I am unable to agree that the law should rule that a gross offence of this sort is no crime. Heterosexual behaviour is, to my mind, in quite another category. It is not that the law does not need reform. I think we are all agreed that the law does need reform as it bears on the homosexual. The homosexual is either mentally deranged, in which case he deserves our compassionate consideration (and this class of homosexual is, in my belief, a minority), or he is a sinner in a sin which is bred from self-pity out of sadism, or from lack of self-control out of lust. As my noble friend Lord Saltoun said, I cannot believe that a great many of these emotions cannot be controlled by men of character. Some measure of reform may be necessary, but not in this way. That is my objection to the Bill.
This Bill offers a charter to the male prostitute. I do not think there is any question about that. Its effects would tend to corrupt society. This point has been made by my noble friend Lord Saltoun, and I entirely agree with what he said; and it is also a point which Mr. Adair makes strongly in his reservations. There is no doubt, in my mind, that it would corrupt society; and nobody has spoken more strongly than the noble and learned Viscount, Lord Dilhorne, in this debate in this connection. Further, in my view, it does next to nothing to frustrate the blackmailer. This point has been touched upon by several speakers. It seems to me that it does nothing to alleviate the situation. Why do I say this? The reason is that, law or no law, the people as a whole detest and despise homosexual behaviour. Therefore, crime or no crime, the blackmailer can continue to rely upon this Bill, if it becomes an Act, as a basis for his misfeasance."
The same hysteria and hyperbole existed then as it does now. Just as they slander the gay community with calls of “polygamy” now, they slandered the gay community with calls of “male prostitute” then. William Shepard was one of the strongest opponents of the bill. Joined by Lord Dilhorne, Lord Saltoun. Lord Arran who sponsored the successful Bill, said in support:
"The Wolfenden Committee… felt that there comes a time in a man’s life when he must be allowed to decide for himself and to act according to what to him are his natural inclinations. This is what this Bill is about. We are saying that a grown-up man should not be a criminal because he is what he is, and because he may find someone else of like tastes and indulge in them privately. We are saying that such a man is evil, if you wish, but that he should not be sent to prison. We are against the persecution of a minority, just as we are against the persecution of Jews or Negroes—people who are born what they are, not of their own choosing.
This is a case of reform. It is strengthened by a desire to remove, or at least to lessen, the blackmail to which so many homosexuals, because of the present law, are subjected. It is strengthened—and to some of us this is the most important argument of all—by the knowledge that homosexuals or cryptohomosexuals can, and do, endanger the safety of this country. The case for reform is simple but formidable, and it has already had your Lordships’ approval."Fortunately, in spite of great opposition, the Sexual Offences Act 1967 came into law and homosexuality was legalised. We should be aware of these past challenges. The religious especially should have a retrospective awareness of their previous hysteria. Surely that would dilute their present hysteria by showing that their outlandish fears do not bear fruit. As Lord Colerance said in May 1966:
"I wonder whether we should not, all of us, benefit if we paid a little more attention to the accumulated wisdom of the past and the experience of mankind, and relied a little less on our own cleverness, which… is landing us in a most terrible predicament."
Equal marriage will come. The religious fears are unfounded. As Lord Wilson recently said, equal marriage will strength marriage. It's not about taking something away from anyone, it’s about giving equal protection to every member of society. Marriage is a financial institution, a civil matter. Marriage is not a religious or moral matter. I want to finish with a quote from Thomas Paine:
"A long habit of not thinking a thing wrong, gives it a superficial appearance of being right, and raises at first a formidable outcry in defence of custom. But the tumult soon subsides. Time makes more converts than reason."Fintan O'Toole said the same here. It’s coming to Ireland, north and south. You better believe it.