Saturday, 8 September 2012

MHA and Gay Rights: An Opinion

9.7.2011 By Ramon Casha in Malta Humanist Association (Files)

When people oppose same-sex marriage, they will often not present themselves as such. "We're not opposing gay marriage", they say, "we're protecting traditional marriage". That gives it a nice positive tone. They're pro-marriage and pro-family, they're trying to prevent gay rights groups from redefining marriage.

But... what is traditional marriage anyway? If you look at the meaning of marriage through history, it has changed many times.

In ancient times, marriage meant one man with as many women as he could buy or steal. As time went on, different women got a different status, so marriage became one man with a few women of a similar social status, called wives, together with a number of concubines and slaves.

This continued changing. Marriage came to mean one man with one woman with the same skin colour or race, though the concubines or slaves remained for a long time. The difference between wife and concubine was inheritance rights, and that is what marriage was all about. Love had nothing to do with it, which is why in many cultures, marriages were either arranged between the prospective husband and the woman's parents, or even between the parents of both sides. It was hoped or assumed that love would eventually develop between them and if not, well that's where the concubines come in.

Even when marriage came to mean one man and one woman, and the dowry became more of an old custom than a real financial transaction, for a very long time - right up to very recently - marriage meant a man as head of the family, with a woman as his loving but obedient and submissive companion. The home, the money and indeed the family belonged to the man, and the expected outcome of every marriage is to produce one or more heirs, who would inherit the husband's business and possessions.

During MGRM's seminar on the legal recognition of same-sex unions, Professor Pizer via video conferencing made mention of "mixed race marriages". It's a very recent change to the meaning of marriage. Not so long ago, this was illegal in many states. Now, it's unthinkable that anyone would challenge a couple's right to marry simply because their skin colour doesn't match.

In other words, the concept of marriage as a relationship between two equal partners, based on love and a desire to share the rest of their lives together, is a fairly recent invention. Based on this current definition of marriage, there no longer is any reason to deny it to same-sex couples. Producing an heir is no longer the primary concern.

People who are opposed to same-sex marriage often don't have any clear idea of what exactly they don't want. If you ask these people, "Which legal rights do you want to deny to gay couples?", most will not have an answer. Some will even say that gay couples should be given every legal right that is accorded to married couples, but it shouldn't be called marriage. It seems that for the most part, it's the actual word "marriage" itself that is the stumbling block.

The problem with the idea of a "civil union" that supposedly carries the same rights and legal status as marriage without being marriage is that (a) the law is creating a distinction for no meaningful reason, and (b) it sets the stage for discrimination to follow. All it takes is for a service to be made available for "married couples", and it would exclude those who are in such a civil union. In some places, it was even suggested as a compromise that all the laws should replace the word "marriage" with "civil union" - for all couples - and then leave it to the couple, or to religious or other groups, to call it marriage if they want to. That proposal did not sit well with the same people opposed to civil marriage. No, they wanted marriage to remain on the books, and they wanted it to refer only to a relationship between one man and one woman.

As the Malta Humanist Association, I think we should officially lend our support to the legalisation of same-sex marriage, or rather "marriage equality". Some other form of recognition, such as civil unions, can be accepted as a stepping stone towards full marriage equality, on the basis that it is probably more achievable at this moment in time, but ultimately there is no reason why same-sex couples should have any less rights than opposite-sex couples where civil marriage is concerned, with one possible exception.

Which brings us to the elephant in the room: gay adoption.

In this matter Malta is different from most other countries I know. In most other countries, there are more orphans in homes waiting to be adopted than there are people willing to adopt them. In Malta the opposite is true. There are lots of children in homes but few can actually be adopted.

In the case of adoption, one must keep in mind that there are two very different broad categories. One is called second-parent adoption. That's when one of the couple already has a biological child, and that person's partner wishes to legally adopt the child. This ensures that the child is cared for should anything happen to the biological parent, as well as allowing the partner to take on some legal responsibilities. I can see no reason why this kind of adoption should be denied to same-sex couples.

The other kind is what most people think of when they talk about adoption - when the child is an orphan or put up for adoption and needs a family. In this case, I think it makes sense for the persons in charge of the adoption process to take each case individually, taking the child's wishes into consideration, and definitely placing the child's interests first. There should be no blanket ban on adoption by gay couples, but, given that in Malta there are more people willing to adopt than there are children waiting to be adopted, and until Maltese society learns to be a bit more accepting of people who are different, there might always be a "better" family willing to adopt a child than a same-sex couple, NOT because the same sex couple is less capable, but because the child may be subject to bullying or other intolerant behaviour from other members of society. By removing the blanket ban on gay couples adopting and taking each case individually, it then becomes a matter of society gradually letting go of its prejudices and accepting every couple and every person and every family for who they are. When that happens it will be perfectly natural that, if a child's best interests are served by being adopted by one couple, it will be immaterial whether the couple are the same sex or opposite sex.

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