Every now and then, some crusty old dinosaur with a little public prominence will expose the prejudices of their time with an unguarded remark about homosexuality or gay marriage; an act which, as expected, is met with much outrage from the more liberal-minded public. One notorious example was Irish politician Iris Robinson, who opined that gay sex was equivalent to child abuse and that the government had a duty to force Christian values on everyone — or at least on everyone except her, as she was busy committing adultery with a work colleague at the time. More recent was Tory politician James Malliff who was suspended from his party after making a similarly bizarre comparison between gay marriage and bestiality.
Contemptible and ignorant as such bigotry is — trying to explain the concept of “consent” to these jackasses would be like trying to explain quantum mechanics to a gibbon — it does rather seem that popular movements to permit gay marriage are barking up the wrong tree. While it is true that anybody who believes in equality for homosexuals must necessarily grant the same rights to gays as to straight couples, nothing in this principle makes any specific assertions as to what such rights must be. Equality in marriage could just as easily be achieved by abolishing marriage altogether.
Much of the opposition to gay marriage arises not out of objection to homosexuality itself (although plenty of that exists as well), but from a belief that religious groups should be free to maintain their traditions without interference from secular authorities. However, campaigners for gay marriage are generally more concerned with the recognition of homosexual relationships in law than with gaining the blessing of religious institutions. Both sides are fighting for different things, which are not mutually exclusive, because of a misunderstanding which arises from the duality of marriage as both a civil and a religious concept.
Picking apart the confusion is actually not a difficult task; many jurisdictions have already gone some of the way with the introduction of civil unions. All that is needed to complete the process is to provide civil unions for everybody, not just homosexuals, while at the same time removing the automatic link between a religious marriage ceremony and the legal status of being married — an anachronism from a less enlightened age when religion and law were indistinguishable. Believers are thereafter free to participate in whatever antiquated and discriminatory rituals they wish, but if they want their relationship recognised in law (whatever that may mean, and ideally it would mean very little) they will have to undertake a separate civil union like everybody else.
Under such a system, nobody’s toes are trodden on. Religious traditions are not interfered with, and homosexual couples have the same legal recognition as heterosexuals. Obviously this will not silence the Iris Robinsons and Andy Schlaflys of the world, who consider the very concept of freedom from religion an attack on their precious beliefs, but there is little point in pandering to people who will never be satisfied with anything less than a totalitarian theocracy. More sympathy might perhaps be given to the committed egalitarians who would object to the tolerance of discrimination even in private ceremonies, but their anxiety is superfluous: the memes of religion are competing for survival like everything else, and with the widespread acceptance of homosexuality in modern society, such regressive attitudes will die naturally if they fail to adapt to contemporary values. Only bad ideas need to be propped up with the crutches of coercion and censorship.
In any case, however, it may be better for the gay marriage problem to remain unsolved for now. As long as the intolerant nutjobs are pissing into the wind with their unpopular ranting about the dirty poofters, they are at least spending less time attacking more controversial topics such as porn and prostitution, which have fewer voices to defend them against the curious alliance between the religious right and the loony left. Perhaps, with a bit of luck, the general public will become so jaded by the feebleness and outdated irrelevance of religio-moralist propaganda that future attempts to use it as a basis for legislation are met with the outright rejection they deserve.