Sunday, February 10, 2013

Same Sex Marriage Debate(s)?

It is quite rare that similar legislation are debated at about the same time on either side of the Channel, but this month, both the U.K. and France are about to make same-sex marriage legal.
On Feb. 12, the French National Assembly is expected to pass a measure legalizing same-sex marriage. Although the bill still needs to win the approval of the French Senate and be signed by the president, it is expected to become law as soon as May 2013.
On Feb. 5, the British House of Commons voted overwhelmingly in favor of a same-sex marriage measure. Another vote in the House of Commons and a vote in the House of Lords are still to come, but the bill is expected to pass and become law in summer 2013. (Pew Forum)
In both countries, the legislation has large public support (here and here).

Nationwide, there is a now majority of public opinion in favor of it. But, as always with the U.S., most laws are defined by the states, rather than the federal government. So far, 9 states have legalized same-sex marriage - 3 of which through popular vote - but 30 states prohibit it in their constitutions.
At the federal level, The Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), passed in 1996, prevents the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriages and allows each state to refuse recognition of same-sex marriages performed in other states (Wikipedia).
Since then, a lot has happened: both Bill Clinton changed and Barrack Obama changed their minds a (here and here), and Obama became the first sitting president to endorse marriage rights for same-sex couples. As with other politicians, it seems that this change of mind can be attributed to personal ties, and to having gay people leading comfortably conventional lives in their worlds. Exposure is definitely a key factor in how people respond.
As often the case in major legal issues in the United States, it is now up to the Supreme Court to weigh in, notably about the constitutionality of DOMA. (NYTimes). It remains to be seen whether the justices have also had similar exposure as other politicians have. Their decision is expected in June.

In the meantime, it may be interesting to hear what happens elsewhere. As you can see in Jon Stewart's funny report here below, the debate and vote in the U.K. was relatively uncontroversial and swift (only 6 hours),  ending in a 400–175 vote in favor, including almost half of the the Tories (conservative).

This is definitely not something you'll see in France and probably not in the U.S. either. Despite public support in these countries, the topic is also clearly more controversial and divisive for American and French politicians alike.
You may be surprised of the similarities of the arguments used by the most extreme conservatives in both France and the United States. As in the video above, similar outrageous homophobic have floated around linking homosexuality to polygamy, incest, pedophilia, and even zoophilia (The Guardian)

In a measure of the bitterness of the public debate, Serge Dassault, CEO of the Dassault industrial group and a conservative politician, predicted in November that gay marriage would lead to the decline of the French nation, like the peoples of ancient Greece.
"We'll have a country of gays and in 10 years there'll be nobody left - that's stupid," the senator for the centre-right UMP party said.
In September, Cardinal Philippe Barbarin, the Roman Catholic archbishop of Lyon, argued that plans to redefine the concept of marriage would open the door to incest and polygamy. (BBC)

Most surprisingly, in a country with such strict separation between church and state, religious leaders have been deeply involved and unanimously against the bill, even though the new law would only affect civil marriage, which are strictly distinct from religious ones. (In France, people who want to marry in the church have two ceremonies - one for the Republic, and one with a priest).
Yet, almost half of practicing catholics are in favor of it and even the right-wing Catholic review Temoignage Chretien (Christian Testimony) has endorsed this bill in an editorial, (published in Le Monde).:
The impact of its statement is even more interesting in that it comes from a religious publication:
"Homosexuality has been persecuted or oppressed for many centuries. However, it is a sexual orientation as legitimate and worthy as heterosexuality. Marriage is a contract chosen by people more freely and willingly today than ever. … Denying homosexuals that contract would add yet another layer of discrimination on those who have been too often subjected to such indignities. That's why we believe it is fair to open marriage to those who want to give a legal framework to strengthen their union.” (Translation here)
As in the U.S. this new bill was also a political opportunity for the conservative opposition to the government to rally its radical wing, especially after the deep division over the leadership of the party.
The French right (....) has attempted to draw out the proceedings for as long as possible. More than 5,300 amendments have been tabled by the opposition, some of which were absurdist, such as the demand that polygamous and incestuous marriages be legalised in the name of equal rights.
Several rightwing MPs warned of an influx of gay foreigners wanting to marry in France. With about 3,000 amendments still to be dealt with in at least another week of debate, the spats are continuing, with the speaker of parliament often urging both sides to calm down. (The Guardian)
Since the law would also allow gay couples to adopt, the conservatives have strategically focus the debate on "children", but not the children of the gay couples that exist, but of the potential children that might exist and be raised by gay families, claiming the "children need both a father and a mother", conveniently forgetting that single people have had the legal right to adopt since 1966. This was as smart as the support for adoption by gay couples barely reaches 50%.

That being said, there was there more to it than mere political expediency as for a lot of people who demonstrated against the bill, it was more about what it means to be a parent than about marriage. Then there is a fear for some people that it might lead to legalizing artificially induced pregnancies for gay couples, and surrogate motherhood which is seen by many in France as exploitation of poor working women by the rich (NYTimes) - something that goes against the founding myths of France.

Because this is France, philosophy and intellectual debates play a greater role in shaping public opinion than in any other country.
In a brilliant Op-Ed in the International Herald Tribune, Robert Zaresky considers that at the heart of the matter is the meaning of the trio of revolutionary values — liberty, equality and fraternity — that France has made its own since 1789, illustrating the  question by the debate between two of France’s most influential intellectuals: Elisabeth Badinter and Sylviane Agacinski, who a fierce debate with similar argument about a law imposing sexual parity in political office.
At heart of it, is a disagreement  about attributing rights based on difference instead of sameness.
Basically, Badinter rejected political "parité" for the same reasons she favors same-sex marriage - the idea that revolutionary France’s liberating credo is based on the universal character of human rights, and the no one should be treated different based on race or gender.
Attributing rights based on difference instead of sameness would reduce the nation to a motley collection of tribes, each pursuing its own instead of the nation’s interest. France would become little better than America, where the range of hyphenated citizens would be as varied as the coffees at Starbucks.
For Agacinski, life’s fundamental dichotomy is the biological difference between a man and a woman, and the difference needs to be recognized so inequality can be remedied. This view also leads her to believe that "the family is yoked to biological filiation", which has been the argument of those opposing the bill.
The problem is that both claim their respective positions have universal foundations which may explain in part the radicalization of the debate.
Where Agacinski glimpses the end of civilization as we know it, Badinter sees civilization as we should know it. 
It seems to me that this EITHER/OR is a false dichotomy. There is room in the French republic for those who claim the "right to be different" (a popular motto of the 60s and 70s) and those who claim "the right to be the same".
There is more danger in denying differences; as Badinter does, because it threatens individual liberties to which all humans aspire.
That being said, I also fail to see the logical link between the fundamental different between a man and a woman, and biological filiation that Agacinski  makes. Research has shown that sexual identity is not synonymous with gender, and a child can develop his sexual identity, even when raised by same-sex parents. (notwithstanding that role models other than just the parents exist in any family).
In this respect, I agree with Badinter that desire, not biology, is essential. It is interesting that heterosexual desire for children tends to be praised, when the desires for homosexuals to have children is often seen as selfish. This reeks of homophobia.
The family, Badinter contends, is the “convergence of individual liberty and shared goals.” It is immaterial whether a couple’s child issues directly from the couple or a surrogate mother. If anything is sacred, it is not the womb, but a couple’s desire, whether they are infertile or gay, to raise a child.

I would like to end this on a note of irony in the words of Frederic Martel in another article by the NYTimes:
Now we’re at a moment when we are all a bit hysterical about marriage — gay marriage. But this is really a conservative movement, about stability in society and being good parents and protecting children and becoming rather ordinary.” (NYTimes)

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