Wednesday, December 15, 2004

How to Persuade a Social Conservative to Support Same-Sex Marriage

I think it was the Apostle Paul, writing his first Epistle to the Corinthians, who said, "It is good for a man not to marry." It's advice I've always taken to heart, which is why I don't really have strong feelings either way about same-sex marriage. (Or about regular marriage, for that matter.)

My father is a different story. He's a lay deacon for his church, and the last time I visited my parents, he suddenly went into a rant against gay marriage while I accompanied him on his morning exercise walk. (I don't know why; I never said anything to encourage him. Maybe it was something he read in the paper.) Anyway, he's against the idea, not because of the merits of the argument but because he finds homosexuality to be immoral.

Of course he's not going to be happy about the recent Supreme Court decision that says Parliament can, if it wants to, enact legislation allowing same-sex marriages to be recognized. (I can't say for sure because I don't discuss politics with him; I just call on him and Mom to make sure he's in good health and that he's doing okay.)

About the one thing that he can take some comfort in is the fact that the decision did make it clear that churches don't have to perform same-sex marriage ceremonies if they don't want to. That's something I agree with. Frankly, I don't think any gay-rights activist is arrogant or stupid enough to try to force a gay wedding ceremony inside a cathedral of an anti-gay congregation. (Now watch, of course, as someone tries to prove me wrong.)

When the eventual bill recognizing same-sex marriage arrives on the order paper, the Liberals are going to have one hell of a selling job, particularly to the social conservatives in Canada -- and there are a lot more of them out there than our national media seem to think.

The gay lobby may counsel Ottawa to ignore them, or at the very most dismiss them as being part of a dying fringe movement. That would be a mistake. There is enough of the Social Right in Canada to guarantee massive public unrest (and the electoral downfall of the Liberals in the west) if the Liberals try to ram a bill through without at least some form of accommodation.

And at the same time, the gay community cannot ignore the "hearts and minds" phase of any legislation as significant as this. It must make an attempt, and a strong one, to convince the Right that this is a good idea -- because if you reach for the Right, you'll cover the political/social Center as well.

So how should such a campaign go? I could make a few suggestions:

1. Don't mention the sex. Most people who object to gay marriage object because they find homosexuality to be immoral and wrong, which leads to the idea that perverts are trying to hijack a sacred societal institution. This idea has its roots in the societal norms which people grew up with in the 20th century and still have resonance today.
People should remember that, in social conservative conventions, marriage is pretty much the accepted license for having sex. This idea is still strong despite 40 years of the Sexual Revolution, and the advent of teen pregnancies, STDs and predatory abuse gives it a certain amount of resonance in families with children on the verge of adulthood.
Mainstream society is only now at the point where sexual orientation is a minor (if not inconsequential) characteristic of how we judge a person; it's "none of our business." The marraige issue needs to be approached in this sort of attitude: that sexual relations has nothing to do with what is wanted here.
If the Liberals want to redefine marriage, then they have to do so in such a way that the implication of sexual relations does not form part of the definition.
And that's only the half of it. The other half is trying to convince everyone, right and left, gay and straight, that the definition is a fair one.
2. Don't make it personal. This morning on the radio, I heard a lesbian freelance writer talk about her marriage. as well as her support for legalizing marriage. It was sweet. It was sympathetic. It was also wrongheaded.
The writer was trying to imply that she was a typical example of a gay person in society ("I am not a threat to you"), and because she and her partner were happy, why should society spoil it be declaring their relationship to be informal?
The trouble with that approach is that it's the idea, not the person, that's the issue.
If you try to personify this issue, you run the risk of creating real schisms in society; if one part rejects an idea held by another, it's as if the other him/herself has been rejected.
3. DO use the money talk. Marriage does convey certain benefits on both spouses automatically. You need look no further than your income tax return to understand that.
This is the part that is a proponent's strongest argument. Families need certain breaks in the law and in the tax code in order to prosper and create good citizens (which is what we want our children to be). Why should it matter that both parents in a family are of the same gender?
This is an idea that has resonance with social conservatives because they raise families too, and they know how hard it is. They recognize fairness when they see it.
4. DO be prepared to accept a compromise. It may be true that the difference between a "marriage" and a "civil union" is one of semantics. But if so, so what?
Let's say that a socially conservative MP is prepared to support a bill publicly if it grants to any gay couple, who undertakes a public ceremony of commitment, all the legal status and rights of a straight marriage, but calls it a "civil union" instead of "marriage." However, the MP will actively campaign against the bill if it refers to the same thing as a "marriage." If you want the bill to pass, and be accepted as law by Canadian society as a whole, do you still seek the MP's support by agreeing to the weakened wording? Remember that the legal status is the same, it's only the terminology that's different.

I'm going to be watching this one on the sidelines. Frankly, the way this issue plays out in Parliament is going to tell us a lot about Canadian society. Whether we're prepared to accept the implications is another matter.