In the aftermath of yesterday’s Equal Marriage vote in Stormont which as pointed out by the Equal Marriage NI campaign was the first LGBT equality debate in the devolved NI assembly and the first UK legislature to debate marriage equality, we are left with a mixture of optimism that there are many more political leaders in favour than the conservative NI perception would have you think (45 votes For and 49 Against) and crushing disappointment when many politicians who speak of progression, change and taking care of the marginalised didn’t vote in favour, or more painfully didn’t even turn up.
This morning East Belfast constituents are calling out Alliance MLA’s Judith Cochrane and Chris Lyttle to give reason for their absence via an online petition. Many non unionist voters are personally thanking and praising one of the three Unionst MLA’s who voted in favour and tweeted last night:
I stand, alone if necessary, for all the individuals in our society and remember that they are somebody’s child. I support #equalmarriage Basil McCrea
That’s leadership right there in my book, it was disheartening to hear tales from the lobbyists of MLA’s ‘umming’ and ‘erring’ on the stairways of Stormont, weighing their decision against votes and politics rather than the principles and values of their political ideologies and commitments.
However, this post is the beginning of a short series providing examination and exploration of marriage, the word, and why it is so important and symbolic for marginalised groups in society and why it is so violently, angrily and fearfully opposed by large and powerful groups and structures.
It is important to highlight here that, whilst I fully support equal marriage, I am well aware that amongst the privileges sought by marginalised groups there are others that could take precedence here, for example mental health care and provision for LGB&T people, challenging homophobic and transphobic bullying in school and the workplace and the horrors of violence towards LGBT people including hate crime and domestic and sexual violence. The equal marriage campaign has a lot of media coverage and inspires a phenomenal amount of opposition, and can often turn into an angry fight. Sometimes I wish this energy could be directed at relieving the oppression of the suicidal and depressed or the abused, but I would be the first to suggest that by adjusting the hierachy that surrounds heterosexuality and non-heterosexuality in redefining marriage, you will undoubtedly have an impact of the esteem, mental health, safety and relationships of LGB&T people.
Within the debate itself yesterday, many who were arguing against were rejecting the use of the word equality, maintaining that the Civil Partnership legislation contained nearly all of the legal provisos of a marriage without changing the definition. I have also seen a few comments from onlookers who are bemused by all the fuss, not in the sense that equal marriage should just be granted, but why is is so important to have the same, is it not just a word?
Yes, it’s a word, but not just a word. Words carrying significant meaning, and it is the meaning, status and privilege assigned to the word marriage, that isn’t assigned to civil partnership in the same way, that people are fighting for.
It is worth noting that I know many heterosexual and same sex couples that prefer the civil partnership legislation; they like the fact that it doesn’t have the layers of meaning, tradition and expectation weighing heavily upon it, and it feels a lot freer from the institution label and structure that marriage can represent. This is helpful and thought provoking and I would certainly argue for a choice; so that couples (regardless of their gender make up) who wish to make commitments to each other or ensure they are legally protected and cared for are able to choose a marriage or a civil partnership according to what inspires them.
So over the next few days I will look at the marriage word and some of the ways it is being used these days, particularly comparing the political and theological uses and mis-uses. In Northern Ireland, regardless of your faith interest and background, all of us continue to live in the shadow of the conservative Christian legacy that our politics and theology are infused with, despite many of us having only a civil, legal and equality agenda.
Stay with me, join in, and let’s create dialogue and story that brings change.