The Prejudice Whose Name we Dare not Speak

One can't be expected to have an opinion about everything.

  • Should Engelbert Humperdinck represent the UK in the Eurovision Song Contest?
  • Should Ken Barlow stay at Emmerdale Farm?
  • Who is your favourite Geordie Shore character?

I could ponder such questions until next Michaelmas and still fail to come up with any opinions.

And so it was, until recently, with the question of extending the institution of marriage to include partnerships between people of the same gender. Don't get me wrong, I've always supported the notion of equal rights for all, regardless of gender, ethnicity, creed (or lack of creed), and sexuality. I've never been able to fathom why what other consulting adults do in bed together should even be an issue (let alone an "issue" - in the sense of that word when it is misused as it increasingly is today). But I suppose I don't perhaps take the institution of marriage quite as seriously as some. Marriage is simply a human institution like the rules of Scrabble or any other code we've invented and live by. We are free (collectively) to do whatever we like with such institutions.

As it happens I'm married, but if the continuation of my relationships with my wife and kids were somehow contingent on a piece of paper in a drawer somewhere, our relationships would - I submit - be rather sorry ones. Certainly, claims that the sex my wife and I have had since obtaining the aforementioned sheet of paper is somehow more "moral" than that we enjoyed beforehand are simply absurd.

Anyway, I digress somewhat.

What really persuaded me to take an interest in "gay marriage" was not some personal impulse to share the "benefits" of this institution with a small (though significant) number of gay people (who, after all, already enjoy marriage-in-all-but-name in the form of "civil partnerships") but the sheer irrationality and disingenuity of the arguments against such a change.

First of all came Britain's most senior Catholic, Cardinal Keith O'Brien's “We Cannot Afford to Indulge this Madness”.

Now I might have simply retorted: “Why should I take anything seriously that a celibate man in a Little Bo-Peep outfit and gold-lamé penis-shaped hat has to say on the subject of gay-marriage?” indeed I believe I did thus retort; but I suppose I ought to extend Cardinal O'Brien's the courtesy of examining his arguments in more detail.

Cardinal O’Brien begins:

Civil partnerships have been in place for several years now, allowing same-sex couples to register their relationship and enjoy a variety of legal protections.
When these arrangements were introduced, supporters were at pains to point out that they didn’t want marriage, accepting that marriage had only ever meant the legal union of a man and a woman.

This was of course exactly the other way round. Supporters of the gay cause wanted full marriage but civil partnerships were introduced instead as a conciliatory gesture towards those who opposed the notion of gay marriage.

He continues:

Those of us who were not in favour of civil partnership, believing that such relationships are harmful to the physical, mental and spiritual wellbeing of those involved, warned that in time marriage would be demanded too. We were accused of scaremongering then, yet exactly such demands are upon us now.

So marriage (in its full form) is a “stabilising influence” and a “worthwhile institution” for heterosexuals, but marriage (in its watered down “civil partnership” form) is “harmful to the physical, mental and spiritual wellbeing of those involved”. Sorry, but I just can’t see the logic there; or, if there were any logic, it would seem to lead in the direction of full marriage rights for gay people.

But can we simply redefine terms at a whim?

Yes, and we often do. I agree this is not always a good thing (see “issue” above) but redefining words is hardly something that is going to shake civilization to its foundations. In any case, the long drawn out process of redefining “marriage” could hardly be described as taking place “at a whim”.

Can a word whose meaning has been clearly understood in every society throughout history suddenly be changed to mean something else?

Has the meaning of this word been clearly understood in every society throughout history?

Has the Cardinal read the Bible?

Has he read, for example, Genesis 4:19 “And Lamech took unto him two wives: the name of the one was Adah, and the name of the other Zillah.” No mention that God had a problem with this. Or Genesis 17:16 where God blesses Abraham’s marriage to Sarai – his half-sister.

In any case, even if the meaning of this word had been clearly understood throughout history, what stops us changing it to mean something else? See “brontosaurus” or “retirement age” … or, once again, “issue”.

In Article 16 of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, marriage is defined as a relationship between men and women. But when our politicians suggest jettisoning the established understanding of marriage and subverting its meaning they aren’t derided.

This bit is easily dealt with. It simply isn’t true.

Article 16 of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights says:

  1. Men and women of full age, without any limitation due to race, nationality or religion, have the right to marry and to found a family. They are entitled to equal rights as to marriage, during marriage and at its dissolution.
  2. Marriage shall be entered into only with the free and full consent of the intending spouses.
  3. The family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the State.

Nothing there whatsoever about men having to marry women and woman having to marry men. Just a statement that both have the right to marry and to have equal rights in the process.

This brings us to the one perspective which seems to be completely lost or ignored: the point of view of the child. All children deserve to begin life with a mother and father; the evidence in favour of the stability and well-being which this provides is overwhelming and unequivocal. It cannot be provided by a same-sex couple, however well-intentioned they may be.

Certainly all children to date (apart of course from the Christ-child) began life with a genetic mother and father. It may of course become possible in future to produce children from same sex genetic parents, but I’m not sure how gay marriage would help or hinder the science here. As for the suggestion that same-sex parents (genetic or otherwise) cannot provide the same stability and well-being that opposite-sex parents can, there is no evidence and certainly no “overwhelming and unequivocal” evidence that this is true. In fact the reverse may be true [see eg Children Raised by Lesbians Do Just Fine, Studies Show].

Same-sex marriage would eliminate entirely in law the basic idea of a mother and a father for every child. It would create a society which deliberately chooses to deprive a child of either a mother or a father.

If same sex marriage were allowed, the vast majority of families would just as continue as before. A few gay couples might (as now) adopt or employ donors or surrogates in order to produce a child who was genetically related to one parent, but not a single family would be deprived of a mother or a father – unless the Cardinal is suggesting that, deprived of the opportunity to marry a same sex partner, gay people would just decide “on second thoughts I’ll just go off and marry someone of the opposite sex instead”?

Other dangers exist. If marriage can be redefined so that it no longer means a man and a woman but two men or two women, why stop there? Why not allow three men or a woman and two men to constitute a marriage, if they pledge their fidelity to one another? If marriage is simply about adults who love each other, on what basis can three adults who love each other be prevented from marrying?

This is the old “slippery-slope”: allow A and they’ll allow B next. I’m reminded off Diogenes’s argument that touching your mother's foot is incest because all the rest is a matter of degree. But not only is this style of argument logically unsound, it has been falsified empirically on many occasions. As I was growing up in the 1960s and 1970s you often heard (or read) the argument that acceptance of homosexuality – which was (let us not forget) illegal between men in England and Wales until 1967 and in some parts of the UK up until 1982 – would eventually lead to the acceptance of paedophilia. The exact opposite has happened. Greater and greater tolerance of homosexuality has developed in parallel with greater and greater intolerance towards paedophilia. And quite right too (on both counts) I say.

And even simply sticking with Cardinal O’Brien’s example of polygamy (which is – as has been noted – taken for granted in the Bible) from what I’ve read on the subject, polygamy is increasingly frowned upon by (for example) the US authorities – even in Utah – at a time when more and more states are considering or embracing same-sex marriage.

But there’s more:

In November 2003, after a court decision in Massachusetts to legalise gay marriage, school libraries were required to stock same-sex literature; primary schoolchildren were given homosexual fairy stories such as King & King.

Oh dear, how terrible! A fairy tale about two kings who are a couple.

I wonder if Cardinal O’Brien has read Grimms’ Fairy stories in the original? In any case the above claim (even if it were true) is another example of a logical fallacy. The fallacy even has a name: “the post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy”. What actually seems to have happened is that this book (originally published in the Netherlands) was translated and published in the USA. It was made available or in some cases read out in some schools or libraries and some parents reacted by bringing lawsuits to require those schools and libraries ban the book. You can read the full story here

But O’Brien saves the best until last (well almost last – his final flourish is to repeat the lie about the Universal Declaration of Human Rights):

Disingenuously, the Government has suggested that same-sex marriage wouldn’t be compulsory and churches could choose to opt out. This is staggeringly arrogant.
Imagine for a moment that the Government had decided to legalise slavery but assured us that “no one will be forced to keep a slave”.

Now we have to be careful when critiquing similes, metaphors, and analogies. For example, the speaker of the House of Commons (John Bercow) recently gave a speech in which he referred to our “kaleidoscope Queen”. Now I’m not entirely sure what John B meant, but I am almost 100% sure that he did not mean that the Queen is rather like a metal cylinder with a twirly bit on the end full of bits of translucent plastic.

Many commentators have suggested that O’Brien was comparing same-sex marriage to slavery (something which, funnily enough is, like polygamy and incest, tacitly endorsed by the Bible [see eg Exodus 21:2]). What I think O’Brien was really trying to say here (in his own clumsy way) is that, just because we are not forced to join in an activity, does not imply that we should condone that activity.

But of course, as in every other one of his arguments, he’s missing the point.

If an activity is something I disapprove of – like (say) watching TV soap operas – then I ought to accept that providing it does no harm to anyone (which I suppose might be debatable in the case of soap operas, but let’s try and stick to general principles here) and providing I’m not forced to join in, I can have no reasonable expectation that those who wish to engage in such activities might be prevented, by law, from doing so. If, on the other hand, an activity (like slavery) results in the suffering of third parties (ie those forced into slavery) then I am entitled to every expectation that those who wish to engage in such activities will be prevented, by law, from doing so.

If churches can freely refuse to conduct gay marriage ceremonies (as it happens, I have never gone along with the notion that belief in invisible sky residents should constitute a get-out-of-jail-free card for those who would otherwise be prosecuted under laws against racist, sexist, or homophobic discrimination, but that’s where we are) and if church goers can freely decide to marry whomever they wish, what possible objection can the devout have to other people wishing to marry whomever they wish?

The entire argument is like saying that someone else’s holiday in Skegness has devalued my holiday in Tuscany – even if you were inclined to go along with pairing of the Tuscany/Skegness axis with the heterosexuality/homosexuality axis, which I’m not.

Needless to say, after this incoherent outburst, lots of people on the internet began shouting “bigot” and “homophobe” at Cardinal O’Brien and a Telegraph journalist for whom I have a great deal of respect (not something I can say about most Telegraph journalists) Tom Chivers (‏@TomChivers) opined that a) shouting “bigot” and “homophobe” wasn’t necessarily the best way to win the arguments; and b) not everyone who opposes gay marriage is ipso facto a bigoted homophobe.

Tom pointed us all in the direction of a more measured article on this subject by his colleague Ed West: Gay marriage – why not just have a referendum?".

Now I’m not really interested in the referendum question per se – not least because that simply begs the question: “Yes, but which way should we vote in the referendum Ed?” – but we might examine Ed West’s arguments that relate to the actual matter at hand.

West begins by observing that
a huge amount of energy is being expended on something actually quite unimportant.

The problem is that this “argument” can always be used against doing anything that addresses the plight of a minority of people. There will always be something more important to do and the thing in question will never get done.

West goes on to claim that

marriage has always been, historically, between people of the opposite sex, and linked to procreation.

This immediately raises the two questions: 1) Is this actually true? (to which the answer is almost certainly “no”) and, more importantly, 2) Even if this is true, does this provide a “knock-down” argument in favour of the proposition that we should not do things differently in future.

To be fair to West, he (partially) considers both these questions (and thereby fatally undermines his own argument).

Of course people unable to procreate get married.
On the other hand I accept that just because this has always been the case, there’s no reason why things shouldn’t change.

West then goes on to repeat O’Brien’s concerns about children being deprived (specifically) of fathers. West does not duplicate O’Brien’s stridency, but he does duplicate O’Brien’s illogicality.

The only marriage that won’t have a (potential) father in it would be a marriage between two women – who would presumably be lesbians. The women in such a marriage might decide to raise a child – via sperm donation or whatever – and that child would then grow up without a father. But, again, does West seriously suppose that, blocked from entering into their marriage, the women would have married men instead before raising children?

I suppose there is one area where West and O’Brien might just have a case: lesbian adoption where the child in question might otherwise have been adopted by a heterosexual couple. But if this is the point, it should be spelt out and those making it should produce the evidence in support of their assumption that lesbian parenting has worse outcomes than heterosexual parenting – evidence that overwhelms the evidence already cited: Children Raised by Lesbians Do Just Fine, Studies Show.

West tries another tack:

Trying to change people’s hearts by law is always problematic.

What? Like drink-driving? Or beating children? Or racial discrimination? Or sex between consenting male adults? Or countless other areas where – at the time the law was changed – most (or at least a great many) people’s hearts led them to oppose the change in the law, but areas where the new status quo is now unquestioned by any remotely mainstream thinker.

Just imagine that someone today began to argue (as many of the devout in Northern Ireland continue to argue when it comes to “religious community”) that only people of the same ethnicity should be permitted to marry. We would call that person “racist”.

Given that those who oppose gay marriage do so not because they have any well-reasoned arguments that lead them to that opposition and that stand up to scrutiny, I am left wondering what, other than prejudice, really drives them.

And if it is prejudice, what should we call it?

Oh and if I am ever asked to vote in an opinion poll or a referendum, I shall certainly now vote unequivocally in favour of same sex marriage and encourage everyone else to do likewise.

I also recommend (and acknowledge the influence of ) Martin Robbins's [@mjrobbins] excellent Guardian article "The irrational and sinister campaign against gay marriage"


  1. Yeah, exile Ken Barlow to Emmerdale -- he causes enough trouble on the Street!

  2. Ah!

    Sorry, another mistake.

    Ken Barlow is a character in Coronation Street it seems. Soap Operas are not really my thing ;-)

  3. A great piece, well written and well balanced.

  4. Admittedly, undermining the arguments of these bigoted, stoically religious, and prejudiced people is like shooting fish in a barrel. But you shoot those fish so elegantly, with tungsten-tipped ammo, really a joy to read!

  5. I'm always struck by the illogicality of arguing that a child needs both parents in order to grow up into a well-balanced person. Widows and widowers seem to manage to bring up reasonably well-adjusted children. If you're saying that it is impossible to bring up a child well without both parents you would expect them to be more dysfunctional than the average, which is not my experience of partially orphaned children.

    As a point of information, not all religious people or institutions are opposed to this - Liberal Judaism and Quakers have been conducting same-sex marriages for years. Belief in 'invisible sky residents' doesn't automatically mean you're on the wrong side of the argument.

  6. Thanks for the comment, but I didn't mean to suggest that all religious people or institutions are opposed to same sex marriage. My point was that (in certain circumstances) religious people or institutions are allowed to discriminate (on the basis of ethnicity, faith, gender, or sexuality) in ways that would normally be illegal.

  7. Bravo! Really enjoyed this post.

    I find the polygamy argument really absurd: there is not one single relationship between three people and that's the decisive difference.
    The state bestows benefits to married couples because a recognised, stable relationship is of benefit to society.
    A group of three people is not inherently stable: there are three bilateral relationships with inequality between them - this is not like the mutual support by one person for one other person within a couple. Ergo why should the state bestow recognition? Why should a term like marriage be given to an arrangement that's so very different to the relationship of a couple? I don't see the connection.

    I also really don't get why it is so difficult to some people to acknowledge that it is a wonderful thing for two people to want to spend their lives together, regardless of whether they are a same-sex or opposite sex couple. Trying to distinguish between them is absurd: love is love and therefore equal has got to mean equal.


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