Niall Crowley's Speech at the 'March for Marriage' Rally
17 Aug 2009
Sunday, 9 August 2009
We are in a period of sustained backlash against the equality agenda in Ireland. Progress towards equality is being damaged by trivializing equality issues. It is being limited by suggesting equality has gone too far and needs to be reined back in. Progress towards equality is being blocked by asserting that now is not the time for equality as we have more urgent matters to deal with in a time of recession. The promoters of this backlash have shaped this Civil Partnership Bill such that it reflects no commitment to equality.
The promoters of this backlash seek to block and reverse progress on equality. They seek to maintain the status quo. But this status quo is not one where equality has gone too far. Rather it is characterized by persistent and significant inequalities. This backlash is therefore about the fear of change. It is not sparked by the achievement of equality for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. Rather it is sparked by the possibility that these and other groups might move towards achieving equality.
A Bill to enable access to civil marriage for same sex couples would have achieved equality for these couples. A Bill that restricts same sex couples to a new and limited category of civil partnership purposefully serves to block this equality. This Civil Partnership Bill is not just shaped by this backlash against equality, it also serves as an active part of this backlash. It is designed to act as a block to the achievement of equality for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.
Backlash seeks to demobilize the forces for change. The instigators of backlash aim to distract and demoralise those who would seek to create a more equal Ireland. They put barriers in the way of those statutory or voluntary sector organizations that would advocate for a more equal Ireland. LGBT NOISE and its allies have not been demobilized, distracted or demoralized and this sets a valuable example if we are to continue to work for a more equal Ireland.
LGBT NOISE usefully asserts equality as the core standard against which to assess the Civil Partnership Bill. This is a valuable assertion that equality does matter even in a time of recession. This provides important leadership for all groups experiencing inequality in this context of backlash. The Civil Partnership Bill fails the test of equality and it is important to protest this failure and to mobilize a demand that it be revised so that it contributes to achieving equality for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.
Equality is about redistribution. It is concerned with the way resources are so unevenly distributed in our society. Equality is about power. It is concerned with the powerlessness of so many groups in our society. Equality is also about how equally social status is attributed to different groups by the institutions of our society. When inequalities of social status are entrenched in Government Policy or when inequalities of social status are codified in legislation they come to pervade popular culture and create a hostile context for groups that are subject to these inequalities.
Inequalities of social status for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people are all too evident in the homophobia that remains widespread in Irish society. These inequalities have their roots in legislation and Government policy. Significant progress was made with decriminalization, the inclusion of a sexual orientation ground in anti-discrimination legislation and the focus on sexual orientation in legislation prohibiting incitement to hatred. The Civil Partnership Bill marks a break with this progress and once again codifies an inequality of social status for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. This will only serve to underpin and reinvigorate homophobia.
The standard of equality, if it is to be met, requires access for same sex couples to civil marriage. This would address the disadvantages that accrue to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in the absence of partnership rights. It would address the need to ensure an equality of social status is enshrined in legislation for same sex couples. It would advance a popular culture that would be increasingly comfortable and at ease with diversity and, in particular with diversity of sexual identities.
The Civil Partnership Bill, however, confines itself to seeking to remove the disadvantages that are experienced by same sex couples in the absence of partnership rights. It does not even do a thorough job of this. It fails to address the rights and responsibilities of same sex couples who are, or who wish to be, co-parenting children. In this regard it does not even live up to commitments made by the Irish Government in the Good Friday Agreement to secure an equivalence of rights with those human rights pertaining in Northern Ireland.
In confining itself to addressing disadvantage, the Civil Partnership Bill reflects serious limitations in our approach to diversity. The Bill does not value diversity, it merely tolerates it. If the Bill valued diversity it would be concerned with securing an equality of social status for same sex couples through making provisions for civil marriage for same sex couples. Tolerance of diversity merely requires that no disadvantage should attach itself to someone just because of different sexual identities. But tolerance is very damaging to social status. Tolerance is about putting up with something that remains defined as a problem. Tolerance requires no understanding of diversity and can easily co-exist with contempt for diversity in sexual identity. Tolerance enshrines an inequality of social status for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. As long as we are limited to tolerating diversity of sexual identities there will be no access to civil marriage for same sex couples and there will be no equality for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.
We need legislation that values the diversity of sexual identities. If we value difference we will take steps to ensure legislation, policy and institutional practices take account of difference and are adjusted to address the practical implications of difference. Currently legislation governing civil marriage does not take account of difference. To value diversity it would need to be amended to give access to civil marriage for same sex couples. This would be good for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. It would also be of benefit to the institution of marriage. That is why we value diversity - it is good for everyone.
The institution of marriage is somewhat tarnished. Increasing numbers of people are opting for cohabitation rather than marriage. The institution of marriage is diminished by the gender inequalities that persist within it for women. It is damaged by the violence against women that can all too often be present within the institution. Same sex couples offer a new energy to the institution of marriage. They could also offer new models of relating within the institution of marriage. That is why we society needs legislation that values a diversity of sexual identities and gives expression to this through enabling same sex couple to have access to civil marriage.
We do need a broad legislative framework for the recognition of sexual relationships. This should be a framework that is characterized by meeting the needs of a diversity of family forms and sexual identities. It should be characterised by achieving equality in this context of diversity. This legislative framework needs to encompass legal forms such as qualified cohabitants, civil partnership and civil marriage and it needs to do so for same sex couples, for transgender people and for heterosexual couples.
However, in this Civil Partnership Bill, we are not being offered an adequate starting point for developing this broad legislative framework. We are being offered a deficient starting point that involves a limited civil partnership for same sex couples only, nothing for transgender people and civil marriage for heterosexual people only. This is a recipe for inequality of social status, for ongoing homophobia and for a damaging segregation of sexual identities.
We need legislation that gives same sex couple access to civil marriage if we are to address the needs of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people and if we are to address the needs of Irish society for greater equality and a true valuing of diversity and its benefits.
Niall Crowley is the former Chief Executive of the Equality Authority.