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Rough Erotic Justice as our World Moves Towards Equal Marriage

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To Have and To Hold Book Cover

To Have and to Hold
Stories and Reflections from LGBT people, their families and friends
Edited by Patricia Devlin and Brian Glennon
[2015, ISBN 978-0-9553582-8-9]

This book was published in the run up to Ireland’s referendum on equal marriage on today, 22 May, 2015. This was my contribution to that book.

Rough Erotic Justice as our World Moves Towards Equal Marriage

Why, in Heaven’s name, does a heterosexual person have a say in whether homosexual people can marry one another but still have the right to marry whomsoever they wish, no matter what the quality of their relationship, and no matter what the outcome to this referendum in Ireland? I have a principled difficulty with erotic justice and other human rights issues for minorities needing to be decided by majority vote. Plebiscites have a habit of bringing out the worst extremes in debate at the best of times. Normal human selfishness would suggest that those who see themselves as not directly affected won’t bother to vote or, if they do, won’t bother to inform themselves well on the issues, thus further compromising the interests of the minority involved. Those opposed, for whatever good or bad reason, then end up with a far greater say than their numbers warrant. The balance is wrong when righteousness pits itself against the direct interests of individuals: religious dogma which, by definition, can only be right, pits itself against minority erotic justice interests, using the democratic device of referendum. There is no face to the righteous opposition for the simple reason that it doesn’t actually have one.

My argument reminds me of the story about the tourists who stop to ask the farmer for directions to Killarney. He replies, “Well, if I was going to Killarney, I wouldn’t start from here.”

We’re having a referendum on the issue of equal marriage in Ireland whether I like it or not!


‘Oh, woe is me for I am gay,’ criminal, sick, sinful, mortified, guilt-ridden, frightened, closeted and silent – as a good Catholic should be who unfortunately found himself intrinsically disordered in this holy country of his birth. Is it any wonder I then made the terrible choice of marrying my best friend – a woman – in the very foolish hopes of ridding myself of this unwanted curse? I wasn’t so much in denial as in rejection of my sexuality and made a brave attempt at being somebody else for many years until it was no longer tenable to continue living the lie in public that I had meanwhile stopped living in private. The havoc I wreaked in my own and others’ lives is still evident to this day.

How has my beloved Catholic Church managed to get itself into the ridiculous situation it now has where it continues to vilify LGBTI people at almost every turn – though with some notable exceptions – without a clue as to the damage it is doing or has done for centuries? While the debate so often boils down to genitality – what who does to whom in bed or wherever – I’ve now come to the conclusion it really has little or nothing to do with sex. No, but just like rape, it is all about power – or, more accurately, the abuse of power. People like me stuck in ‘oh, woe is me’ mode are controllable: a thousand one night stands are eminently forgivable, but a committed monogamous relationship between consenting adults that affects no one else is beyond unforgivable. It’s a perfect way of maintaining all the rest of the moral rule book scaffolding that follows from the same logic, especially when it is supported in the local culture by laws, and taboos, and medical opinions to back it up.

But wait, the medics are no longer so sure that sexual perversion is an illness; and the law has decided to remove itself from the bedrooms of its citizens if no one is being exploited and no real law is being broken. Much more significantly, most of the ‘oh, woe is me’ brigade has moved on from this self-loathing to a somewhat more self-affirming position. Many younger people no longer have the pleasure of the ‘oh, woe is me’ stage, thus denying them the character forming benefits it epitomizes. Church, sadly, has been left behind – way way behind! It still perceives homosexuality as defective heterosexuality: there’s no erotic justice in that, moral or otherwise. And it truly doesn’t know how to cope. Plus the very foundation of its stance has come into serious question: the very few supposed biblical prohibitions on homosexuality are not quite as well-founded as first appeared – except to extreme fundamentalist interpretation that even uses the word ‘homosexuality’ in its Bible, a concept that is barely a hundred years old. And they say Christian teaching doesn’t change! The story of Sodom isn’t about homosexual love at all but about inhospitality to the outsider in the form of threatened gang rape with the added bonus of the offer of Lot’s daughters to the aroused mob in hopeful appeasement. There’s a phenomenal difference in my book between gang rape, gay or straight, and a committed same sex relationship. And what does the Bible have to say about such a relationship? Nothing! And what does Jesus have to say about homosexuality? Same same!

The lived experience of LGBTI people is nowhere to be encountered in any Church pronouncements – the opposite, in fact. Church, instead, continues to distance itself from all expressions of sexual orientation and gender identity [SOGI] except the meekest and most submissively compliant.

Church sees it as its role to support wicked new laws in Africa against LGBTI people, and then to stay silent in the wake of the excesses that flow those laws – intimidation, bullying, discrimination, blackmail, police brutality, job loss, home evictions, mob rule and even murder. Two recent incidents in the same week – one in Nigeria, the other in Uganda – had two suspected gay men beaten within an inch of their lives by righteous local mobs without one single word of condemnation from authorities, church or state. The most public actions currently of Catholic bishops in the USA involve wasting Church funds on opposing equal civil marriage campaigns and firing teachers and other Church workers for not being sufficiently closeted about their same sex marriages or intentions to marry. Where is the Christianity in any of this? How has this great institution of learned men managed to get it so terribly wrong? Maybe, partly, it is precisely because it is an institution of men only.

One of the most interesting opinions I have encountered following the extraordinary synod of bishops in Rome in October 2014 has been that of LGBTI Christians who have realised the problem the Catholic hierarchy has with homosexuality is truly the hierarchy’s problem and no longer an issue for these LGBTI people themselves who have largely moved on from this anachronistic official Church-view. It’s as though the hierarchy is making itself more-and-more irrelevant to real people’s lives.

But what has this to do with equal marriage in Ireland? Everything and nothing, depending on which way you might look at it. In the Ireland I grew up in, the Church had such extraordinary power over ordinary people’s lives. It has well and truly fallen off its pedestal meantime! Might this explain how holy Catholic Ireland now appears to be overwhelmingly in favour of allowing equal marriage? How is Ireland able to go forward like this when many sub-Saharan African countries along with Russia want to go backwards? And countries like Jamaica and Moslem dominated countries determinedly hold onto their homophobia and homophobic laws against all opposition? Or India chooses to take one step forward and two steps backwards? This is not helped by the reluctance of countries like Singapore, for instance, that no longer prosecutes LGBTI offences, but couldn’t be bothered to decriminalise them because it’s too much trouble. This means not only that any further advances are way off in the future locally, but also other more repressive regimes can hide behind the Singapores of this world and carry on regardless. It’s a bit like when everything was illegal in Ireland, those perpetrating sexual crimes that should be illegal could gladly continue to operate beneath the radar because the greater number were being harassed and prosecuted and discriminated against for crimes that should long since have ceased to exist.

Indeed, why is equal marriage so far advanced on Ireland’s political agenda when it is only twenty years since homosexuality was decriminalised here and only four years since civil partnerships were enacted into law? Could it be that, despite all the noise from fundamentalist groups, proper legal recognition of LGBTI committed relationships affects no one – other than the contracting parties themselves and their loved ones? What then allows Ireland to move forward like this while other countries want to move backwards? What’s the tipping point?

While Ireland seemed to take forever to decriminalise homosexuality – needing to be dragged kicking and screaming to the European Court of Human Rights before it reluctantly began to get its act together – when it finally did so, it did it with some of the best law in the world on the issue. Why? A key meeting with Máire Geoghegan-Quinn, Minister for Justice, and Phil Moore, the mother of a gay man, where they talked ‘mother-to-mother’ was a turning point in the negotiations. There seem to be several key elements to a country’s progress towards abandoning its homophobic laws and attendant culture: visibility, debate and mothers.

Harvey Milk, San Francisco’s murdered City Supervisor, had it to say that the single most important political act any LGBTI person can make is coming out, no matter how difficult that might be. Still, while I admire the extraordinary courage of LGBTI activists in countries like Jamaica, Uganda, Cameroon and Uganda, I fear the price they pay is phenomenally high, sometimes so high they lose their lives through it. A further aspect of visibility, of course, is telling our stories. I’ve little doubt that once equal marriage began to be rolled out in the US, state by tedious state, it was the stories of love, life and loss that precipitated the domino effect that is nearing completion by now.

Oliver J Flanagan, TD, infamously said, “There was no sex in Ireland before television”. This starkly reflects the recently stated views of Uganda’s President Museveni that discussion of sexuality – any sexuality – is taboo in that country. And then he immediately launches fourth into the never-ending vitriolic debate there now on homosexuality. There was no talk about sex in the Ireland that I grew up in: this is the critical glimmer of hope that I see for the Ugandas and Nigerias and Jamaicas of this world. We need to remember that upon the liberation by the Allies of the few Jews surviving in the concentration camps at the end of WWII, the homosexual inmates were kept imprisoned! It is not homosexuality that is unAfrican as claimed by Ugandan politicians, but being out and proud about it. Not all that long ago it was also unEuropean and unAmerican! Cultural change at this pace is virtually unknown in the world, especially during peace time. For this reason alone, there are bound to be setbacks.

I originally questioned the wisdom of settling for civil partnership legislation as an interim solution, believing it simply let politicians off the hook on equal marriage. Time has proven me wrong. It could even be that civil partnership was a useful preliminary stepping stone. As ordinary people saw the joy of friends and family celebrating civil unions, the realisation dawned that there had been an awful lot of fuss over exceedingly little. Yes, I was wrong about civil partnership delaying equal civil marriage. Politicians have found it relatively easy to progress it, notwithstanding the loud noise from fundamentalists whose arguments are proving very hollow in most western countries. But I was equally wrong about progress in the West heralding LGBTI erotic justice advances in Africa and beyond. Equal marriage in the West is producing at least part of the backlash in places like Uganda and Nigeria, even though the particular topic isn’t even on the priority list of local LGBTI activists there.

I firmly believe that when mothers in Africa start to say it is no longer acceptable the way their cultures treat their sons or daughters who are different – similar to what has been happening in Ireland – will be the beginnings of change. Indeed, there are glimmers of this already. In the immediate aftermath of Uganda’s wicked new anti-homosexuality act coming into force in early 2014, one young gay man I know there who was publicly outed by ‘Red Pepper’, a local tabloid newspaper, was immediately disowned by his family. Later, he re-established contact with his mother but was asked not to visit her in his village. More recently, they have been meeting quietly. There are many similar stories, though typically homosexuality is seen as a choice; gay people are presented as recruiters of children; it is believed to be on the increase; wealthy American evangelical church turf wars are negatively queering the pitch, so to speak; denigration of LGBTI people is seen as helping in the fight against AIDS (how is beyond comprehension); western sanction threats are perceived as neo-colonialist and therefore largely ignored; and so on. Nonetheless, through continuing visibility of courageous LGBTI people, even those that seek asylum and refugee status abroad, but refuse to stay silent, and ongoing painstaking education and debate – no matter how vitriolic in these early stages – the political scapegoating will eventually be seen for the smokescreen it truly is for economic mismanagement, programme failure and corruption.

There is currently no notion in places like Uganda et al of the huge social and economic cost to the country of homophobic laws and culture – and not just through undermining anti-AIDS efforts. When such a large minority of people is so frightened the way they are, they cannot possibly contribute to their own and others economic wellbeing to their full potential. Such an injustice; such a waste!

A time will come when ordinary Ugandans and Nigerians will look back and wonder how their forefathers could have been so cruel to their already marginalised LGBTI fellow citizens – just like we currently look back on slavery, on apartheid, and on the Holocaust. My abiding feeling after visiting Auschwitz concentration camp some years ago was of man’s inhumanity to man: it is in us all!

Will the churches ever catch up? God knows!

There’s a wonderful line in Frank McGuinness’s play, ‘Dolly West’s Kitchen’ (1999), from Marco, a gay American GI, serving in Derry/Londonderry during WWII:

“All I want from the Catholic Church is an apology – a long apology. And I hope they will understand when I refuse to accept it.”


Written by Frank McMullan

22 May 2015 at 21:01

Posted in Uncategorized

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