The Australian marriage equality debate underlines the need to stay vigilant

Guest writer, Michal Astley, examines and deconstructs some of the main arguments in the debate on marriage equality in Australia.

As the Australian plebiscite on same-sex marriage approaches, this article from the Australian press is doing the rounds on social media. It is from the pen of David Sargeant of The Spectator Australia.

The article is very cleverly written indeed, and reading it made me feel really quite uncomfortable. I consider myself a reasonably intelligent person, yet I struggled to understand why I felt this way. It is obviously written from a perspective sharply at odds with my own, but I often read material and enter into dialogue with people expressing such views, and without feelings of unease.  The article details incidents in which people have been unfairly treated in a perhaps overzealous attempt to ensure the freedoms of queer people.  Yet it wasn’t this either, for I’m not above accepting fair criticism.

No, this was something different, and I think I have finally realised what it is. Sargent presents incidents that are clear examples of injustice against people who are not supportive of queer equality, and then intersperses between them a combination of his own outlandish arguments and flagrant misrepresentations, in a very cunning attempt to lend the latter some credibility by association with the former.  It is this that has made me feel ill at ease. Judging by some of the commentary, not everybody is capable of recognising his deception for what it is, and I suspect it is this fact that he was relying on when he had this piece published.

It is this veneer of credibility and reasonableness that makes the unchallenged acceptance of speech and writing such as this piece so insidious, for they only thinly conceal the usual bigotry and prejudice that we have always known.

Starting, then, with the few valid points in the article:

The Asher’s Bakery fiasco was shameful.  They did nothing wrong, did not discriminate against anyone, were nothing but respectful and friendly, and were happy to serve the customer. They simply didn’t want to add a political slogan with which they disagreed to one of their products. If I ran a company making bespoke slogan key-rings, and someone asked me to produce one that said “oppose trans rights”, or something similar, I would also refuse, and would think that I had the right to do so. To their credit, I think the family handled themselves with great dignity throughout the whole affair.

As for Tim Farron, before he was so badly treated, a number of conversations that I had with queer friends all came to the consensus that we respected him. In particular, I had great respect for his decision to abstain from the same-sex marriage vote in the Commons as he felt it was the only way to balance his religious convictions with his belief that one person’s religious beliefs should not be used to curtail the rights of another. The way that he was hounded by the media in the name of supposed equality was a disgrace.

That having been said, it is Christian political opponents of same-sex marriage who laid the foundation for Farron’s ousting, for it is they who have framed adherence to Christianity in the public eye as opposition to queer rights. Why did Christian MP Iain Duncan Smith get away with riding rough-shod over the nation’s poorest people without being called out on his hypocrisy by fellow Christian politicians? Why do so many people know that Muslims oppose the charging of interest but are unaware that this is also an ancient Christian principle – that the lending of money to people in need is not to be used as an opportunity to exploit those people by increasing their debts with usury? I’ll tell you why: it is because these are not the things that supposedly traditional Christians in positions of political authority have chosen to be publicly Christian about. However, for as long as I can remember and long before that, Christian politicians have been the first to state their opposition to queer rights. Is it any wonder, then, that the media wolves sank their jaws into this issue as soon as they detected the first whiff of onion-skin bible paper on Farron’s fingertips?

The Adrian Smith case is mildly terrifying.  I disagree with his views but they were legitimite views to hold, and the fact that his employer could use a political and religious view shared on Facebook – particularly among friends only and not to the general public – to discipline him, concerns me greatly, especially as this is the sort of thing I do regularly.

All of these things having been noted, before I move on, I would like to make the observation that the pendulum of the treatment of queer people by the law and society is swinging away from degrading and persecuting us, and that it will go too far in the other direction before it finally settles into a proper and balanced rhythm. None of that makes any of these injustices right, but it is an expected part of the shift as people try to find a way forward.  Those who remained silent or who were complicit in our maltreatment ought not to be complaining now.

Moving on to the first of the article author’s mischaracterisations, then, this comes very early on in the article:

Then prime minister David Cameron announced that, despite having made no mention of the issue in his party’s pre-election manifesto, it would be MP’s (sic) who decided the fate of marriage.
Now, it’s Australia’s turn to choose. There’s one key difference. Unlike in Britain, it will be the people who decide.

His intention here is clearly to draw a distinction between the supposedly lobby-beaten PM controlling the way in which the decision to introduce same-sex marriage was made in the UK and the apparent freedom given to the Australian people to decide for themselves.

Those are nice sentiments, aren’t they: “Freedom”, “Choice”?  The problem is that applying them here ignores just how contrary to justice the notion is of making the rights of a minority subject to an opinion poll. If any system could effectively keep the oppressed down and the oppressors in power while calling it fair, this seems designed to achieve it.  This is not The X Factor, and matters such as whether or not human rights ought to be extended to minorities should not be determined by a popularity vote.  The very idea is obscene. It might have been necessary in the Republic of Ireland as this is a requirement for any change to the wording of the Irish Constitution – and fortunately it turned out well on that occasion – but as a general principle, this surely cannot be seen by anybody as a good model for deciding such matters.

He moves onto gender and the reduction of the degrading and invasive hoops through which trans people will have to jump in the future. The careful reader will notice that he fails to present any argument about why this is a bad thing but simply rants about how awfully radical it all is while ignoring the detrimental effects that the present situation has on trans people – perhaps they just don’t matter, and he assumes his audience will feel the same way.

Sargent then goes on to tell us of the dangers to the churches, and cites views expressed by the Equalities Minister as an example of how churches are being forced to abandon their beliefs:

Equalities minister Justine Greening, has insisted that churches must be made to: ‘Keep up with modern attitudes’. (my emphasis)

Anybody could be forgiven for thinking that we are in the thick of a great persecution. Yet, when we look at the article that he provides as his source, we find that this ferocious insistence of Ms Greening’s actually takes the following form:

I think it’s quite important that we recognise that for many churches, including the Church of England, that was something they were not yet willing to have in their own churches.
I think it is important that the church in a way keeps up and is part of a modern country. I wouldn’t prescribe to them how they should deal with that.
But I do think we are living in a country where people broadly recognise that attitudes are in a different place now to where they were many, many years ago.
We have allowed same-sex marriage, that’s a massive step forward for the better. For me, I think people do want to see our major faiths keep up with modern attitudes in our country.

She’s clearly a tyrant bent on the persecution of anybody of faith.

Next, the speaker of the House of Commons is quoted as supporting same-sex marriage in church. Here’s the thing: in England, we have a state church, and the law of the land is intertwined with ecclesiastical law. As part of that, Church of England clergy are de facto registrars for civil marriage. That means that in addition to performing the Christian sacrament of Holy Matrimony, they also have the ability to do the legal bits at the same time.

The argument is very simple, and has been expressed by many people, many times, and in many places. If the Church of England is going to perform civil marriages on behalf of the state, then it should marry the people the state says can get married. If it doesn’t want to do that, it should get on with the business of celebrating the Christian sacraments and remove itself from the business of the law.

The next part of the article left me with my mouth open in shock. A couple stated that they would not be supportive of the development of a queer child and were therefore deemed to be unsuitable foster parents, and this was cited as some great injustice. I’m sure I don’t need to enlighten anybody about the immeasurable damage caused to queer and other children by homophobic parents and guardians (including those who are not hostile but who neglect the needs of their children due to their views). The examples are so wide-ranging and countless as not to need a mention. It isn’t for nothing that nearly 25% of homeless 16-25 year-olds in the UK identify as LGBTQ+, much higher than the percentage of the population generally.  I volunteer with one of the charities working with some of these young people, and can tell you that in the majority of cases, the cause has been a hostile home environment driven by attitudes founded in, or dressed up as religious beliefs, to the point where these young people have either had to run away or been thrown out, usually after years of psychological damage due to feelings of fear and isolation, and taught self-loathing. That says nothing of the situations they end up in and the things they have to do to survive once they are made homeless.

As a society, we cannot choose which families children are born into but we can certainly choose which families will look after vulnerable children who have nobody else. Now we have a local council and the High Court taking that responsibility seriously for the welfare of these children, and this man cites it as a great evil because some queer-opposing people “have had their dreams of parenthood scuppered”? So what? I’m sickened by his priorities alone. Looking at the Christian Post article to which he linked, I note that the director of the Christian Legal Centre, Andrea Minichiello Williams, had this to say on the matter:

There is a great imbalance in the law at the moment, resulting in ordinary people suffering.
The situation must be addressed by Parliament as the judiciary have failed to stand for civil liberties but have capitulated to the agenda of the homosexual rights lobby.
We cannot have a society where you are excluded just because you don’t agree with the sexual ethics of the homosexual lobby.

It seems the irony of what she was saying was completely lost on her. Substitute the words “conservative Christian” for “homosexual” and you essentially have the situation under which queer people have been living for centuries.  She needs to get a grip of reality.

Whether the reasons are religious, cultural, personal, or whatever else, if people give the authorities reason to believe that placing a child with them will be detrimental to that child’s well-being, they absolutely should be treated with scrutiny and potentially be deemed ineligible.

Sargeant goes on to use the tired and worn-out “Think of the children!” method of scaring people into opposing queer equality.  For years, we have been campaigning for queer-inclusive SRE in schools, precisely because of the critical situation that we have reached. There has been provision for heterosexual young people for years, in lessons, in books and other educational materials, and in what parents are willing to discuss. That has not been the case for queer kids due to social taboo, lack of provision in schools, children being closeted at home, the absence of published materials, and parental discomfort in discussing same-sex romantic and sexual relationships (even from otherwise accepting parents).

The result has been that queer kids learn about these things not from a responsible teacher, but rather from discussions with ill-informed friends, from pornography, and from their early sexual encounters, with the result that they’re often ill-equipped to deal with the realities of basic things such as how to be safe, how to be clean, what to expect, and how to avoid STIs. One of my volunteer training sessions was with the George House Trust, at which I heard of the sad case of a 19-year-old gay man whose first time hearing about HIV was when he was told he was HIV-positive. How does someone get to that age without someone sitting him down and preparing him for responsible sexual behaviour? (And no, “don’t have sex” will not do.)

Yet David Sargeant presents teaching young people facts about relationships and sex from an educated and responsible source in a safe and protected environment as the scourge of our times, and opposes a shift towards making schools take responsibility for this. It is difficult to see any wholesome motive in any of this.

This article is designed with one purpose, and that is to reinforce that prejudice, bullying, and oppression of queer people is real. We are accustomed to outright homophobia, biphobia and transphobia but now that this is becoming socially unacceptable (to varying degrees, admittedly), it is taking other forms.  We cannot and must not allow this sort of thing go unchallenged just because it dresses itself up to appear respectable.

Speak out against this sort of thing wherever you see it, and counter these arguments whenever you come across them. We have made great strides towards equality in law and society, but the war is not over, and once we let the Trojan horse into the courtyard, there’s no controlling what will jump out of it.

Be vigilant, friends!

Follow Michael on Twitter (@Michael_Astley)