Bigotry, intolerance and marriage equality – a reply to Breda O’Brien

So much has been said and written on the marriage equality debate of late that I was reluctant to add my voice to the melee. Mostly because those who have written and spoken have done so regularly and in far more articulate and comprehensive terms than I could possibly hope to do within the confines of a single blog post. Colm O’Gorman, for example, every time he speaks on the issue does sterling work in debunking myths. And this piece by Carol Hunt in today’s Sunday Independent says it so much better than I ever could. With biscuits. However, reading Breda O’Brien’s defence of the status quo in yesterday’s Irish Times left me so bewildered that I felt compelled to reply.

It’s fair to say that Breda’s ideology and my own beliefs do not normally correspond. However, no matter how disagreeable her beliefs to me, I can acknowledge that O’Brien is occasionally capable of making a sensible argument.  In fact, I roundly applauded her piece on suicide and alcohol, published in January this year. Which makes it all the more remarkable that such a meandering piece could possibly, in O’Brien’s mind, advance her own cause.

O’Brien writes in reply to a piece published by the same newspaper by Fintan O’Toole, which suggested that the arguments against marriage equality were so flimsy that they essentially amounted to bigotry. O’Brien’s response was to argue that these arguments were not bigotry; rather that liberals like O’Toole were blind to the merits of conservative values and arguments, which in essence suggest that appeals to the greater good (“even, in this case, a child-centred good”) trump those “liberal” values of equality, choice and fairness.

At least O’Brien is admitting that, at the very least, opposing marriage equality is unfair.

I don’t know where to begin in terms of pulling apart her arguments. Many of them speak for themselves. But while they have already been addressed comprehensively, point by point elsewhere, I’ll reply to a couple that jumped out at me.

Firstly, there’s the lazy invocation of the tired old “liberalism vs. conservatism” argument. As well as being patronising and reeking of moral superiority (the essence being that conservatives make deeper, more rational considerations and that the former does not understand the rationale of the latter’s arguments) it takes no cognisance of the fact that 75% of the population, who support legislating for marriage equality, are rather unlikely to all classify themselves as liberal. This is not – or should not – be an argument based on political ideology, and on why conservatism apparently trumps liberalism when it comes to the greater good. Rather, the essence of the pro-equality debate is to show that we, as a society, value all members equally, regardless of their sexual orientation. To reduce it to a mere ideological argument exposes the detachment of those at the heart of the opposing debate from why this is actually important. It’s one-dimensional and, I would go so far as to say, irrelevant.

“Thoughtful conservatives are not bigoted, or intellectually inferior, or vile: they just see the balance of values differently”, says O’Brien. Indeed. In fact, if I were a thoughtful conservative, I would be deeply embarrassed by the fact that O’Brien claims to represent conservatives on this issue. Indeed, You need only look to New Zealand to see that some conservatives are capable and willing to embrace positive change.

O’Brien also says she believes marriage is a solemn covenant. So do I. So, I would wager do many of those gay couples who take the massive step of standing in front of their family and friends, publicly declaring their love for each other, and indicating their intention to commit to each other in a partnership for the rest of their lives. Based on love, that commitment to me is a sacred one (though crucially, there is nothing saying it has to be either sacred or based on love).

O’Brien states, however, that “society has a major stake because it provides the most stable environment for bringing up children, a physical and spiritual expression of the couple’s love.” This is incorrect. Obviously – and this has been effectively addressed a thousand times – this definition glaringly excludes those marriages that do not have children. It also, with no justification, calls into question those families who successfully bring up children without being wed. Rather, I see society’s stake in marriage as essentially ensuring that the contract I enter into, of my own free will protects me and my partner  and my home – and any children we may have – should anything happen to either of us. This, in addition to how I personally view marriage. The fact remains that civil partnership does not extend the same protection to same-sex couples. And it should. So yes, marriage is a personal relationship, but this is precisely why the state should take an interest.

It’s also churlish and petty of the Catholic Church to try to blackmail the state by implying they will refuse to carry out civil ceremonies in tandem with Catholic ones, as they have always done. Sadly, it’s also disenfranchising no-one but their own practising members.

O’Brien insists, once again that a “child needs both a mother and a father”,  despite there not being a shred of citable evidence available in the public domain that suggests that children do not fare just as well with same-sex parents. She suggests that in times when these ideals are not met, people “usually do their very best, and most times, the child turns out fine”. What a thinly-veiled, patronising insult to one-parent families, for example, to suggest that their family unit is less valid or desirable or even potentially damning to a child than the two-parent mother and father ideal. How judgemental. Legislating for marriage equality does not, as O’Brien suggests in a further challenge to the credibility of her own argument, declare that having both a mother and a father has no intrinsic value. And anyone who would suggest so is guilty of some rather poor spin.

(Interestingly, no argument either for or against marriage equality I have seen takes cognisance of the fact that children are not solely raised within the home. Rather, many influencers of children during their formative years are outsiders – be this extended family, teachers, youth group leaders, or indeed those further afield like say, media figures. So, just like those who confirm to the “ideal” family unit, parents in same-sex partnerships are not entirely responsible for how their children turn out.)

O’Brien’s piece then descends into further farce as she ties herself up in knots over the use of language and makes bizarre references to fictional characters like Humpty Dumpty and Alice in Wonderland in an attempt to legitimise her argument. Language is powerful, she says. Yes indeed, Breda. Language is very, very powerful. And language that says clearly to members of our society that they are not – or indeed, should not be equal or entitled to the same legal rights as others is powerful AND damning.

The most worrying aspect of the fact that O’Brien and the Iona Institute are allowed apparently unfettered access to our national airwaves on an almost constant basis, despite, in this case a lack of any relevant qualification, raises questions about the media’s difficulty in attempting to find qualified dissenting voices. While I for one am perfectly happy to see the Iona Institute rolled out as frequently as possible, because no-one does a better job of undermining their own arguments than they do themselves, ultimately the loser is society. Arguments not rooted in fact only serve to disarm the legislative process and the poor quality of opposition debate contributes to a corresponding decline in quality of legislation.

Ultimately, and happily, we all know that change is on the way. Even old conservative Ireland is gradually recognising that legislating for marriage equality won’t stop the world from turning, and will not impact on them in any meaningful way unless they choose to avail of it. But they are realising that it will make a positive difference to the rights of others, in addition to telling them that we respect and value them and their love equally. And that day is not far away.

I’ll leave you with this – a humorous and emotional celebration of marriage equality and what it really means by –  you guessed it –  a conservative.

7 thoughts on “Bigotry, intolerance and marriage equality – a reply to Breda O’Brien

  1. I hate how the status quoers always bring children into the debate, and use such rubbish in an attempt to back their argument. I’m a gay man, I am no fan of marriage but. hey, if others are foolish enough to want it, then why not, I’ll fight for your rights.

    I am a father. My wonderful fella and I are raising two boys, now aged seven and six. They are amazing and we love them unconditionally. We have adopted them because there heterosexual, biological parents (the type Iona adore) abused them in all sorts of ways.

    The language I want to use when I read tatt written by the likes of Breda O’B, and other like her, is unprintable. Tell me that at 2am when our youngest is having night terrors because of his past, or when the dentist says that their teeth are rotten because of their poor diet when they were toddlers, or when one of them approaches a stranger because their damaged attachment styles means they can’t keep themselves safe.

    Our kids were deemed unadoptable and their future in children’s homes, and young offenders centres was already mapped out for them. Infertile straight couples wanted to adopt babies to replace the baby of their dreams, and not two amazing but challenging boys.

    Our adoption order won’t be recognised in Ireland, because we’re both the boys legal parents according to it. Iona Institute want to play games with our kids. They claim that people like us damage our children, that we’re a social experiment, so should be denied recognition as a family.

    I’m an atheist but always believed that Christianity meant love. How wrong was I. Christianity, as demonstrated by Breda and others associated with Iona Institute, means prejudice and discrimination and lies and a false hierarchy of worthy members of society.

    • Hello Donal,
      that is very well said and the points you raise are a very good vindication of the point that all children need is a loving environment, no matter what arragement it is as most single parents will testify.
      (I think children are brought into the marriage debate because the arguments on marriage per se will never stand up the last chance they have is to try to appeal to the rights of the children)
      My parents were married. My father was an alcoholic and living in such a set up was terrible. If my mother left and brought us it would have been better than living through the hell we grew up with. I had the so called perfect family the iona institute say is the ideal and was very damaged because of it. Thankfully my mother was strong in her own way. many families are flawed and what goes on behind closed doors is unknown. Children need love and a loving environment.

  2. Bigotry Is Bigotry Folks – Joe Rodgers

    The recent recommendation by the Constitutional Convention that the Constitution be changed to allow for civil marriage for same sex couples has certainly ruffled some religious feathers. It’s not surprising then that the Iona Institute’s Breda O’Brien and David Quinn have come out, guns blazing with plenty of personal opinions, but little fact and evidence to support them.
    What is the Iona Institute I hear you say?
    Well, as far as I can tell – and as far as I care to know – the Iona Institute is an academic sounding name given to a group of Conservative Catholic apologists in order to attempt to somehow legitimise their own beliefs and present them as morally relevant to Irish society. These beliefs are directly influenced by Catholic dogma, making the group and its individual’s, supporters of some of the Catholic Church’s most conservative, right-wing and controversial standing on issues such as abortion and homosexuality. They themselves do not shy away from their standing on these issues.
    They are a private, and privately funded unelected, lobbyist group with a particular agenda.
    The latest article by the Institute’s own Breda O’Brien in the Irish Times; To Oppose Gay Marriage Is Not Necessarily A Bigoted Position, (which might alternately be titled ‘Excusing The Discrimination Of Homosexuals’) reveals another attempt to hide bigotry in the form of legitimate opinion and to the shirk responsibility for the harm this intolerance imposes upon vulnerable young people who may be confronting issues of sexuality within Irish society. This problem is something which Breda recognises, but feels is not as important as the courage of her convictions that homosexuals are different, and should be treated differently.
    This folks is bigotry.
    The poet and physician Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. described bigotry as: “The mind of a bigot is like the pupil of the eye; the more light you pour upon it, the more it will contract.”
    Indeed, one of the earliest descriptions of the word bigotry was used to describe a ‘religious hypocrite’. Now that strikes a chord.
    In her article, Breda confuses the role of marriage within the eyes of the state with that of Catholic teaching. Breda claims that the state has a vested interest in marriage as this legal institution is the best possible scenario to raise a stable family. If that were the case, the state would have no interest in marriages which do not produce children or, marriages between older citizens who have reached an age where pregnancy and child birth are no longer normally possible.
    Like many in modern Irish society I married for three reasons; Tradition, Legal Status and Tax Benefits.
    I did not get married because I believed it would form a more stable environment for children. My children have the benefit of that stable environment by the co-habiting of their parents. How can Breda tell me that this stable environment changed physically or spiritually when we signed a document in a civil registry office? The simple answer is, it did not.
    Breda, through her Catholic indoctrination has confused the legal status of marriage as recognised by the state and that which is promoted by the Catholic Church. She is entitled to this opinion. But opinion is all that it is.
    Children are raised in stable and unstable homes. Most are married, some are not; stable or unstable. Some homes having loving and caring parents, some have abusive and aggressive parents and/or guardians. Simply becoming married does not guarantee the provision of a loving and stable environment for raising children. That is down to the parents.
    If these parents are pre-disposed to abuse and neglect marriage will not change them. Likewise, children are raised in homes with unmarried parents who provide a loving and stable environment.
    The important element in raising children responsibly is a positive and rational approach by the parents, not a legal document. Breda is arguing that same sex couples do not have the ability to provide this positive and rational approach simply because of a homosexual relationship.
    On what basis is she reaching this conclusion? How can she pre-judge people she has never met? How can she (a schoolteacher) be qualified to judge whether a couple whom she has never personally met are unqualified parents?
    The answer is simple. She cannot. She is simply echoing her religious beliefs through a newspaper article that homosexuals’ are different.
    This is bigotry folks.
    Breda states that “A child needs both a mother and a father.”
    This has traditionally been seen as the best case scenario for a stable home. However, that is again rather disingenuously applying the same slide rule to all of society. Our society is made up of a rainbow of differing factions, rich/poor, privileged/deprived, prosperous/unemployed, stable/unstable, loving/uncaring, happy/unhappy, and there are many middle grounds between all of those opposite situations.
    Children are raised in homes with abusive and neglectful mothers and fathers. Instead of highlighting this and using her considerable political status to campaign for children in such homes, Breda instead wishes to spend her time and energy arguing how two females or two males cannot provide the same loving home which she thinks every heterosexual marriage does.
    Does Breda believe that two co-habiting, unmarried aunts should not be allowed to legally stand as guardians for a child? Same question with two bachelor uncles? My bet is that she would state that this is not a best case scenario, but she would see no issue in it.
    If indeed she would have no issue with same gender couples raising children in a non homosexual household, but does have a problem with the same scenario in a homosexual relationship, then it logically stands to reason that she has a ‘problem’ with homosexuals. She believes they are different, which is as I suspect.
    Breda pretends to expose a Liberal contradiction in campaigning for equality of sex in society, while somehow denying that same equality to females/males in a marriage by supporting their substitution with another male/female.
    This argument is ridiculous and holds no water at all. Breda misses the point entirely in pretending not to see how the very sexual rights and equality which Liberal’s campaign for regarding women in the workplace are the same rights and equality that same-sex couples are being denied, with civil unions as a token replacement for legal marriage and the protections this institution brings.
    Breda fails to grasp that marriage is an institution in which the state has a vested interest because marriage provides couples and their next of kin with the soundest legal rights and protection within Irish society. In opposing same-sex marriages Breda is advocating a continued discrimination against Irish citizens on the basis of their sexual orientation.
    This is bigotry folks.
    After some ridiculous word playing games with ‘lesbian’ and ‘gay’ which seem to serve no other purpose than to complete an editorial word count, Breda loses the courage of her convictions totally.
    She states that “Although it does not chime with my personal beliefs, I don’t have a difficulty with civil unions, because they redress certain injustices. Neither do I object to gay adoption, when the only alternative is to spend life in a loveless orphanage.”
    Plenty of children are raised in loveless, heterosexual marital homes
    If Breda has personal issues with civil unions in accordance with her personal beliefs then she should come clean and admit what those beliefs and problems are, not pretend to momentarily sit on the fence and emphasise with homosexuals. Civil unions do not bestow the same rights on same-sex couples as does the legal status of marriage. That Breda is the whole point in the first place.
    Is Breda also stating that gay adoptions should only be allowed to proceed from Oliver Twist orphanages? That homosexual couples should somehow only be granted access to dog-pound orphanages and only to take the children that no one else wants? Why should homosexual couples not be allowed to go through the same adoption process as heterosexual couples? Is Breda stating that ‘ok, in certain situations we could give some of the (excuse the expression) rotten apples that no one else wants to the gays’?
    Again, I ask how Breda can pre-judge people she has never met? How is she (a schoolteacher) qualified to judge whether a couple whom she has never personally met are unqualified parents simply because the home consists of two male or two female adults?
    The answer is simple. She cannot. She is simply echoing her religious beliefs through a newspaper article that homosexuals are different.
    This is bigotry folks.
    Breda states that she would support (as if she is a stakeholder in the creation of legislation) “guardianship of children being awarded on a case by case basis to gay couples who have children from previous relationships, provided it does not destroy the original parents’ rights and responsibilities, and enhances the child’s rights.”
    That is certainly a lot of preconditions. Again I am curious. Why do the couple have to have had children from a previous marriage? Why do they have to have been previously married at all?
    Does Breda believe that these conditions are somehow going to guarantee the creation of a stable home?
    There is no existing evidence based on analysis of surveys that homosexuals would create an unstable home, none whatsoever. The fact that Breda and the Iona Institute argue for delay in any legislation is a classic and familiar diversionary tactic, the never ending long finger.
    These religious naysayers cannot argue soundly enough to halt liberal legislation on such contentious issues, so they are content to frustrate and delay it. The reason they cannot argue soundly in opposition to same-sex marriage is because no justifiable argument for discrimination based on sexual orientation exists or is morally permissible in a modern society.
    Why, I would ask, does Breda not suggest we apply the same vetting rules to opposite-sex couples attempting to adopt children? Indeed, to follow her argument through to conclusion, if we are to be so concerned with the welfare of children in the home, then surely we should vet all couples attempting to have children through natural pregnancy?
    Why is it that homosexuals should be subjected to a cynical and suspicious vetting system as if they are being paroled from prison? Perhaps Breda would like to see them sign on at a Garda station weekly after adopting a child.
    I can see no other reason for the aforementioned draconian and nanny-state conditions being applied towards a minority faction other than the fact that they are distrusted and held in deep suspicion by the Iona Institute.
    Why? Because Breda believes they are different to the rest of us, and that this difference is a blight upon our moral, religious society.
    This folks is the essence of bigotry.
    Not content with arguing for discriminatory vetting of homosexuals based upon her own personal and unsubstantiated fears and prejudices, Breda takes a condescending and patronising swipe at single parent families. When (her own) ideals of a two parent opposite-sex marital home are not available, she states, ‘the child usually turns out fine’.
    Clearly, Breda believes that the only guarantee of raising children in a stable environment is to place them within a home with a mother and a father of a heterosexual orientation, and that these parents are married.
    I think Breda should take some time to talk to social workers who have put in years in the field dealing with the many problems in these ‘perfect’ Catholic nests.
    However, what I find most galling of all is that for all of this arrogant, bigoted, unsolicited and unqualified advice on how we should be concerned for the welfare of Irish children, there is absolutely no mention at all of the horrific abuse thousands of children received within Catholic schools and other institutions. We are still uncovering this abuse, it still goes on. No one has yet been held accountable for the acts perpetrated or the criminal cover-ups which were presided over by senior members of the Catholic Church.
    Is Breda concerned with this injustice and danger in our midst? Is she concerned with leaving children within the care of men who have taken a vow of celibacy (a truly unnatural act)?
    If she is, she is strangely silent on the issue.
    Finally, Breda admits the serious repercussions her intolerant preaching can have upon vulnerable and socially isolated young homosexuals;
    “I received a very sad email from a gay man recently, who wanted me to highlight the problem of suicide among young gay men, and to realise that opposing gay marriage could make life more difficult for a young gay person.”
    She goes on…
    “I was not going to write about gay marriage; for fear that I would harm a young gay or lesbian person. But I changed my mind, because now, not to do so would be to be completely lacking in courage.”
    So she admits the dangers and perils of her actions upon frightened and confused young people, however she pauses at compassion because her own individual moral beliefs supersede this compassion. What is genuinely worrying is that Breda is a secondary school teacher at a large school for young teenage girls. Statistically speaking, some of these girls are probably coming to terms with homosexual feelings and desires and may be confronting an inner turmoil at a very difficult age.
    Does Breda read the comments section on her Irish Times articles? If she does she will recognise the despicable intolerance and incitement-to-hatred this type of opinion is generating. The posts are chock full of homophobic and racist abuse. This is the very type of cyber-bullying that our society pretends to be concerned with and which has led to the tragic suicides of a number of young people recently.
    This type of journalism compounds this delicate issue.
    Breda summarises with an explanation of how: “Thoughtful conservatives are not bigoted, or intellectually inferior, or vile: they just see the balance of values differently. The shame is that anyone has to point that out.”
    Thoughtful conservatives in Britain and New Zealand among other countries are supportive of gay marriage. They – conservative or not – recognise that in a modern society you cannot discriminate against or disenfranchise citizens based upon a dislike of their sexual orientation any more than you can on the colour of their skin.
    This folks is bigotry, plain and simple.

  3. Quite frankly the more they go on the more they drive away. The same is true with abortion. There as well the mix up two things, the Citizen and the religion. If they saw things in any way other than where they see a drastic loss of control to themselves they might see the Constitution is a very powerful bulwark.
    Gay marriage or anything that has implications to the Citizen where one has something or permissions more than another is de facto unconstitutional. But if the Catholic Church wants to hold their position, well so what. It’s an entirely different thing if you as married have and hold privilege another is denied.
    Where abortion is concerned, all debate is mote since the Constitution cannot undo or un-recognize that which it has seen. The unborn is a Citizen as much as is Micheal D. And no referendum can change this. But in both areas it is the Supreme Court that’s the forum, not the ballot.


  4. Thanks to all for taking the time to read and leave your comments.

    Donal, thank you in particular for sharing your story, and with it a very real story of how the standard family unit (in they eyes of the likes of Iona) often falls very far short of the ideal in reality.

    My family has fostered children for over 20 years, and every child that has stayed in our house was treated as family, including my now 17 year old sister – who IS my family. Yet, in Breda’s patronising view, that’s just second best. We’re “lucky” she turned out fine. (In reality, we’re very, very proud.)

    Your boys sound like they are very lucky to have you and your partner and the love you have brought to their lives. Wishing you all the very best.

  5. Pingback: A response to a response to a response on marriage equality | An Cailín Rua
  6. Pingback: Breda O'Brien - A modern Irish hero? - Page 17

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