The Difficulties: Northern Ireland and the equal marriage conversation – or lack of….


I wrote loudly and clearly that I am in favour of equal marriage – I hoped and hoped that more politicians would vote for it than against – I despaired of the way the conversation was being framed on both sides – I particularly despaired of it in Northern Ireland.

Marriage Equality wasn’t voted in on Monday.  It was quite a close vote but overhelmingly disappointing and discouraging at the same time.  It’s difficult when you hope your leaders will lead where you want to go and they don’t.  I’m left thinking about a list of difficulties that swam to the surface in the layers of ugly comment and ‘debate’ on Monday and the strategy of all those involved.

Difficulty No 1 – The pursuit of equal marriage is being framed by sectarian politics:

Only three Unionist politicians voted in favour of equal marriage yesterday, as far as I know these were the same three who voted in favour the last time.  This looks to the public and the onlookers around the world like those who seek equal marriage in Northern Ireland whether gay, straight or transgender are only located in one side/half of the community and/or who tend to vote one way.

Similarly the ping pong politics being conducted in Stormont that often boil down to whether people can sit in a room together let alone talk about issues other than flags, money, bombs and prisoners played out in a similar fashion in the run up to Monday’s debate.  The petition of concern tactics employed on the occassion of both equal marriage debates and votes were seriously immature, ignorant, blind and assuming in nature and reflect the point scoring approach employed between the two main parties in power in Stormont. .

Approximately 101,000-168,000 people identity as same sex attracted in Northern Ireland, it is estimated that there are about 5000 transgender people also living in Northern Ireland (although many more are invisible or isolated) These brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers, uncles, aunts, cousins, neighbours and friends will mostly fall evenly between a unionist or nationalist community or at least one of these backgrounds.

Will the sincere, intelligent and engaged unionist politicians please stand up and take care of your constituents affected by the oppression and discrimination directed at gender and sexual minorities?  There are mental health, education, violence and marriage considerations to be made and right now most Unionist identifiers see almost no-one in their corner.

The main political party championing ‘equality’ rhetoric in Northern Ireland at the moment also need to do more than just make speeches and give quotes to camera that sound good.  Let’s see a little more on the ground funding, policy, campaigning and lobbying rather than just winning a debate and polarising the media coverage of a deeply sensitive, personal and important issue such as equal marriage by taunting your opposition.  Your community and voters also need to see politicians that know the issue inside out – if this was the case it would be a far more complex and robust conversation that people would listen to and understand rather than just saying the word ‘equality’ again and again.

Difficulty No 2 – Archaic, prejudicial and hate speech

Discussing equal marriage seems to give the media and politicians a bizarre license to permit degrading, offensive, harmful, ugly and downright hateful language, images and attitudes to grace not only social networks but mainstream BBC programming and the ‘hallowed’ halls of the parliamentary debate chamber.  I continue to be amazed and appalled at what civic leaders judge is okay to say, producers allow on air and citizens are willing to articulate in regard to gender and sexual orientation.  I fully accept the liberty of and freedom of speech as a key marker of democracy, but I also am hopeful that our society, particularly Northern Irish society has learnt some lessons about understanding identity, meaningful and respectful dialogue,  the trauma inflicted by systematic oppression and discrimination.  Yet when it comes to discussing sexual orientation and gender identity it doesn’t matter how rude or offensive the words or ideas are or what associations or assumptions are made.  This in itself is indicative of the pervasive sexism and homophobia running through the politics of this debate, the political leadership say it, the preachers say it and so callers say it on air. You may not want to acknowledge it but I’ll tell you – that’s only a few degrees of separation from the playground and classroom bullying, the self harm and suicide attempts, the domestic abuse, the bricks through windows, assaults and murders.  Our words are violent if they are not life giving or nurturing.

Those who spoke against minority sexual orientation and/or gender identity have their hands dirty when it comes to oppression and those who set the example and facilitated it – media, churches, politicians – have their hands dirty too.

Difficulty No 3 – Representation

There are many, many issues and concerns that I believe the people of Northern Ireland/Ireland would like to vote on referendum style – I really do believe that the politicians do not speak for the people when it comes to equal marriage.  I can’t tell you the number of fallen faces I’ve witnessed when hearing about legal discrimination against LGBT people up until 2003 and 2006 in this part of the world as well as the number of cheering, clapping, smilling faces I’ve seen supporting anti-homophobia campaigns and Pride for example.  I was told that a member of the DUP said on a BBC radio programme this morning: ‘Westminster should be following NI on this one, not the other way around.  The Northern Irish public don’t want gay marriage.’  I just don’t think this is true.  I think that many DUP politicians locate public opinion within the views of their voters/congregations and I would question how reflective of the population demographic that is.  Secondly, the way that the DUP frame the issue, debate and discussion is so limited and dare I say prescriptive – making  sweeping statements that the population of Northern Ireland/Ireland are also/only the high level of church attenders and therefore think what they think.  Judging by the conduct, strategy and tactics of the Coalition for Marriage (The Christian Institute) who relate well to the DUP voter base I’d have a fairly strong view that assumptions are made about what people think and/or people are being told what to think.

Difficulty No 4 – Faith, Morality & Politics

This confusion of faith, religious belief, moral posturing and equal marriage debate is leading to a really bad conversation.  People of faith will be dismayed by what is being said in parliament in their ‘name’, politicians will be dismayed by what is being said in the name of politics, the public will be dismayed at the moralising, exclusion and negative language and images being done by and in both traditions/arenas.  As I said in Monday’s post it’s difficult with a conversation of this nature to separate out faith, ethics and politics – but for this very reason the conversation needs to take place carefully.  I did not witness any care on Monday in parliament or in any media representations.  People have been writing, thinking and conversing about equal marriage, sexual orientation, gender, politics and ethics for decades, centuries even.  There are a lot of careful words and thoughts out there – what faith, moral or political leadership I have witnessed this week seems to be motivated by an anxious, fearful, panic about change and a lack of knowledge or at least a limited, narrow knowledge base.  I’ve heard people oppose equal marriage intelligently and thoughtfully – I may not agree but the conversation is robust and considerate and more respectful than Monday’s.

Faith leaders and politicians who have a faith need to skill up – and as a friend of mine articulates ‘hold the tension wisely’.  Where is the wisdom and consideration for the impact of the words and actions taken on Monday?  Where are the more moderate leaders?  Where are the radical and progressive leaders providing better words, images and conversations for the public to have?

A final thought on the faith narrative is  how concerning it is to see the disconnect between the two sides or two communities in Northern Ireland.  Similar to the sectarian politics there is a worrying articulation of faith from one political side and an absence from the other.  I will compile in the next day or two a reading list of pieces and books written by both catholic, protestant and protestant evangelical authors and theologians to evidence the quality of content  within these communities.  If we are going to talk about faith and minority groups – for God’s sake let us learn from our legacy and dignify each other with wise and nurturing dialogue.

Difficulty No 5 – When equal marriage is talked about as gay marriage

There’s a lot of people ranting about equality on both sides of the debate/issue – there’s also a lot of people insisting that this is about gay marriage.  As I have said before, this is something symbolic and therefore important but there are so many other more pressing issues for gender and sexual minorities that should be dominating the politics at this time.  However, what I believe about equal marriage and why I think the focus is equal marriage is because this idea, this principle and ‘redefining’ has the potential to open up the experience and structure of marriage for everybody regardless of sexual orientation.  Having a conversation about what marriage is, is important and potentially liberating and transformative – for those embracing it and for those who are oppressed by it.  Whilst it’s probably not the most important thing we should be talking about – equal marriage has the potential to change the world for everybody and that is an exciting thing.  This isn’t about ‘gay marriage’ – it’s about marriage, equal marriage and I’d love to hear more about that in these conversations.

Further Reading:

Equal Marriage: It’s not politics it’s marriages we are talking about here

My Why Marriage? Series

How To Win A Culture War & Lose A Generation – Rachel Held Evans (This blogger is running a year long series exploring different views in Christian evangelical culture about sexual orientation and sexuality – if you’re into reading online and keen to learn more look around her site)

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Filed under Culture, Gender, Sexuality

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