September 29, 2003

Homophobia in the Name of God

Struggling to prevent legalization of gay marriage in Canada and elsewhere, religious groups and social conservatives are proving to be their own worst enemy

By George Dvorsky, September 29, 2003

In mid-September, the issue of gay marriage reached a legislative and emotional high point in the Canadian House of Commons. The world's most annoying opposition party, the Canadian Alliance, tried to quash the ruling Liberal party's attempt to have the definition of marriage expanded to include same-sex couples. The opposition forced a vote for a motion that would reaffirm marriage as solely the union between a man and a woman.

For a few nerve-racking moments on September 16, Canadians across the country held their collective breath as the vote came down to the wire. The motion was defeated by a margin of 137 to 132, with 53 Liberal representatives voting against the wishes of their leader, Prime Minister Jean Chr├ętien. Gays and social progressives across the country rejoiced for a brief moment while gazing at each other with a phew-that-was-a-close-one look on their faces. That moment in Ottawa captured just how divided the House remains on the issue, a fair representation of the great divide that splits Canadians over this controversial issue.

And indeed, this story is far from over. Just two days after the Alliance's failure, the party introduced yet another motion to undermine Liberal intentions, this time by introducing legislation that would cement a heterosexual-only definition of matrimony while allowing provinces to provide for same-sex civil unions. And so the discussions rage on with no clear end in sight, forcing both parliamentarians and Canadian citizens to engage in heated debates.

But there's an interesting aspect to this particular debate that I've detected, one that will interest people everywhere whose countries must cope with the tension between conservative ideology and the expansion of tolerance and liberty. As I've listened to the combatants, I've noticed that they're not really conversing with each other—it's more like they're talking at each other. It's as if they're speaking two different and mutually incomprehensible languages.

We are truly dealing with a clash of worldviews here. But ultimately, what it all boils down to is a debate between those who are homophobic—whether they care to admit it to themselves or not—and those who are tolerant and inclusive in regards to the gay lifestyle.

Not surprisingly, as church groups and social conservatives rail against the proposed legislation, and as the debate deepens, the real issues are forced to the surface, the anti-gay bias emerges and the authoritarian religious imposition reveals itself.

As far as I'm concerned, and I'm sure as far as most liberals are concerned, it's all good. The more the religious groups and conservatives talk, the more they embarrass themselves and reveal their true ignorance and irrationality. It's pretty hard, after all, to defend hate, prejudice and intolerance while not looking utterly ridiculous and just plain mean-spirited.

Go to hell

The Roman Catholic Church continues to be its own worst enemy these days. It has shown a despicable unwillingness to deal with the rash of pedophilia among its clergy, it continues to alienate women by remaining staunchly patriarchal and keeping women out of the priesthood and, of course, it still maintains that every sperm is sacred.

As an expert evangelist organization, the church is also guilty of targeting the children of the world, spawning generation after generation of people who are shamed into sexual repression, terrorized by threats of eternal damnation and brainwashed into believing nonsensical pseudoscience.

It comes as no surprise, of course, that a number of Canadian Catholics have jumped right into the fray regarding the gay marriage issue. Right on queue, by coming out into the open with their views, they have inadvertently launched a negative publicity campaign against themselves. And this time they have hit a new high. (Or is that low?) Even my jaw hit the floor in stunned disbelief after reading comments made by a Calgary bishop named Fred Henry.

Addressing his Catholic prime minister, Henry warned that Chr├ętien risks burning in hell if he insists on allowing the passage of the legislation. "He doesn't understand what it means to be a good Catholic," Henry said. "He's putting at risk his eternal salvation. I pray for the prime minister because I think his eternal salvation is in jeopardy. He is making a morally grave error and he's not being accountable to God."

Of course, I'm forced to wonder what Henry thinks is the fate of non-Catholic Canadians and those who, by his standards, are living in perpetual sin.

But alas, he is just being a good Catholic. He's merely honoring the demands made by the Big Guy in Rome. Clearly disturbed by all this gay marriage talk in Canada, Europe and the US, Pope John Paul II and top Vatican officials finally spoke out. Catholic politicians were told that "when recognition of homosexual unions is proposed for the first time in a legislative assembly, the Catholic lawmaker has a moral duty to express his opposition clearly and publicly and to vote against it. To vote in favour of a law so harmful to the common good is gravely immoral."

So much for the separation of church and state. Well, I suppose that the whole idea of divorcing religion and politics was never in the interest of the religious elites in the first place. And it's pretty obvious that they haven't gotten their head around the concept. For example, Bruce Clemenger, president of the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada, recently stated that "it is tragic to see the fundamental issue of the nature of marriage being sacrificed to party politics."

Clearly, there's confusion among the religious as to the distinction between a civil marriage and a religious one. The same-sex marriage debate has highlighted how poorly tolerated is our right to be free from religion.

The anti-gay bias

Of course, homophobia is not exclusive to the adherents of the Abrahamic faiths, although one could argue that Western homophobia stems from that particular religious ethic. Recent statistics in Canada show that the gay divide is also a generational one. A recent poll found that more than 60% of respondents younger than 35 support same-sex marriage while an equal percentage of seniors oppose it.

These statistics are not too surprising. It was under the tutelage of the older generation that gay-bashing was a common occurrence and queers and fairies were considered best kept in their closet. It's this deep and ingrained sense of repugnance towards homosexuality that characterizes the moral sense of this older generation and other less tolerant folk. And while some could handle gay unions, the thought of gays raising children—and potentially passing on their faggy sociocultural germs—is too much for most to bear.

While not nearly this severe in tone, and while she would adamantly deny that she is homophobic, Canadian bioethicist Margaret Somerville comes perilously close to perpetuating these kinds of attitudes. It was in her recent column for Betterhumans, "Culture is Wedded to Nature," a rebuttal to columnist James Hughes, that she revealed her true colors. She argued that gay parenting would represent a social experiment, one that would put innocent children at risk. Ultimately, what her argument boils down to is an assumption that gays will make poor parents. Actually, not just poor parents, but dangerous parents.

Why all lesbian mothers or gay fathers should make poor parents is a profound mystery to me. And why all heterosexual parents should be naturally gifted and competent is an equally ponderous proclamation. Clearly, this is an anti-gay prejudice and a pro-hetero bias that lacks any coherent evidence or sense, and is not based in any reality that I'm a part of.

Just keep on talking

Poking fun at orthodox Catholics and reactionary bioethicists and exposing them for what they are is like shooting fish in a barrel; it's far too easy. But it's important that they keep on talking because they make my job as a progressive social activist much easier. I can quote them verbatim and let them embarrass themselves. The absurdities and prejudices in their arguments and actions are self-evident.

Of course I say this with some tongue in cheek. Considerable work still needs to be done, and a passive approach could be dangerous. The tensions between conservatives and liberals is as strong as ever, with each side working earnestly to see its vision of a just and safe society actualized. Thankfully, as far as liberals are concerned, there are a number of activists and politicians working in the direction of expanded tolerance and equality.

For example, while the Alliance party is working to send Canada back to the Dark Ages, Svend Robinson of the New Democratic Party is working to take Canadians into a more diverse and egalitarian future. In a move designed to counter the Alliance and expand on the Liberal party's legislation, the NDP introduced a motion to protect gays and lesbians from hate speech. Bill C-250, sponsored privately by Robinson, will bring sexual orientation into the country's hate propaganda laws alongside color, race, religion and ethnic origin.

Robinson's bill was approved by a vote of 143 to 110—an extreme rarity for a bill introduced in this manner by a private member of a minority opposition party. "It's been a good week for equality in Canada," an emotional Robinson said outside the Commons. "I feel proud to be a Canadian.' His response was understandable; he has been working since 1981 to have this particular bill passed.

Frustrated by Robinson's views, and worried that religious texts could be considered hate literature, Alliance justice critic Vic Toews denounced Robinson by saying, "His ideology is fascism, not free speech."

Yup, just keep on talking. Keep on talking.

Copyright © 2003 George Dvorsky

This column originally appeared on Betterhumans, September 29, 2003.

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