Monday, 4 March 2013

Times: Marriage equality for all
Saturday, March 2, 2013 by Silvan Agius

Many arguments have been made for and against marriage equality (or, as it is widely known, same-sex marriage). Some people believe that, in view of an absence of a national consensus on the matter, it is still early to attempt to raise the issue on a legislative level.

Others argue that, while there is a need for the State to legislate in this area, registered partnerships should suffice. I disagree and believe that you should too.

The first marriage equality law for heterosexual and same-sex couples alike was adopted in the Netherlands in 2001. Since then, various countries and States around the world have adopted similar laws. In Europe alone, seven other countries followed suit: Belgium in 2003, Spain in 2005, Norway and Sweden in 2009, Iceland and Portugal in 2010 and Denmark in 2012.

Additionally, this year, the parliaments of France, the United Kingdom and Luxembourg are advancing Bills for marriage equality for all couples, irrespective of sexual orientation. In fact, the French National Assembly supported the Bill with 249 votes to 97; the House of Commons supported the UK Bill with 400 votes to 175 and Luxembourg’s Chamber of Deputies’ Justice Committee unanimously approved the Bill before it.

This means that, by the end of 2013, there will be 11 countries in Europe that will have equalised their marriage laws. This trend will not end there. Finland, Germany and others have pending marriage equality Bills before Parliament too.

In view of this, why should Malta not embrace equal rights for all and follow suit?

Some people argue against marriage equality on the basis of tradition. They say that, historically, marriage has always been between one man and one woman and that it should stay like that. However, apart from their historical inaccuracy about the recognition of same-sex couples in different epochs, these people seem to have conveniently forgotten the history of persecution and criminalisation of gay and lesbian relationships.

They forget that, until 1973, sexual intercourse between consenting adults of the same sex could land Maltese gay men in prison! They also forgot that, until 1975, all marriages were celebrated in Church because the country did not have a civil marriage institution.

Other opponents of marriage equality base their opposition on their fear that marriage equality will somehow devalue heterosexual marriage and redefine marriage away from the family unit. Once again, this argument is not based on fact or anthropology.

The institution of marriage has been renewed (or ‘redefined’, if you wish) throughout the ages and has different meanings in different societies.

Fortunately, married women are no longer legally expected to be subservient to their husbands and they are not made to resign from their jobs once they marry, as was the case until 1980. Additionally, following the introduction of divorce legislation in 2011, marriage is now ‘forever until death or divorce do us apart’.

Yet, as we all know, couples continue to marry regardless and marriages are as valuable as they always were. Besides, in all countries that introduced marriage equality, both the institution of marriage and the family unit remained strong pillars of society. No society collapsed. No drama. No earthquakes. Instead, these societies simply embraced equality and moved on. In short, fear of the dark is never good policymaking.

A third group of people is more tolerant. They agree that same-sex couples should be recognised by law but believe that this should be done under a separate institution. They tend to support their argument through statements such as ‘this is Malta’ or ‘we are not ready yet’. In their reasoning, they indirectly acknowledge the baseless nature of the opposition towards full equality but seem to find solace in what they believe is a pragmatic step-by-step approach.

However, there is no such thing as partial equality. Equality either is or is not. Time and again, those countries that introduced registered partnerships as a parallel same-sex institution realised the discriminatory nature of the separation between heterosexual couples on the one hand and same-sex couples on the other.

Most importantly, civil unions do very little to bring about social equality as there is little educational value regarding equal respect for diverse couples through legislation that is inherently discriminatory and segregationist.

This is precisely why Alternattiva Demokratika is proposing the introduction of marriage equality in Malta during the next legislature. We believe that this is feasible if done within the human rights framework.

This is because we also believe that the State has the moral obligation to protect its minorities against discrimination and to ensure equal rights for all.

The concept of family in Maltese legislation does not exclude same-sex couples and there is no constitutional barrier towards the widening of the scope of marriage legislation.

Moreover, religious sensitivities can easily be respected because the introduction of civil marriage will not change the current understanding whereby the different religious denominations will remain free to regulate their own marriage ceremonies.

To conclude, marriage can only be strengthened if more couples have access to it and, in view of this, advocates of marriage should be happy that same-sex couples want to embrace it.

Silvan Agius is an Alternattiva Demokratika electoral candidate.

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