Same-sex marriage, love and dissent

Dean Tony La Viña

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I hope that homosexuals can still seek equal recognition before all society, and that the Catholic Church and others still defend the divine purpose of heterosexual marriage

Dean Tony La ViñaIn a monumental decision by the US Supreme Court a couple of weeks ago, legislative attempts to restrict the legality of marriage to heterosexual couples in the Defense of Marriage Act were struck down as unconstitutional—meaning, that state governments may conduct marriages between gays and lesbians, and the federal government holds them as equally valid as straight-couple marriages, and they will be protected from legislative prohibition.

Homosexuals the world over celebrated its promulgation, as it was also greeted by religious conservatives with equal dismay.

I’ll touch on the divide between them later, but first, I must also disclose my own feelings about this development. I do so because of the roles I play in society—a human rights and social justice activist, a dean of a school of government in a Catholic institution, a Filipino and global citizen—but also because of my memories and emotions.

A personal experience

My position on same-sex marriages is informed by many factors. But I would be lying if I denied that most of all it is my personal relationships that have shaped my views most.

When the US Supreme Court decisions came out, I posted this on Facebook: “As the US Supreme Court decisions on gay marriage came in this evening, I could not help but think of five persons. Many years ago, when I was writing a book, I lived for months in a house with four homosexual men (the fifth person, also a homosexual, lived elsewhere but was their friend and always came to our house). It must have been a moment of temporary insanity because at that time I was very homophobic. In high school and college, I used to literally run away from gay men that would approach me, with the exception of relatives and classmates who I did not want to hurt. But because I needed a good, quiet place to write a book and because of curiosity, by sheer will I conquered my fears and decided to live in that house. I would not regret it. Aside from the good food they cooked for me and the wonderful conversations I had with them, living with gay men opened my eyes to a world that was unfamiliar yes but in the end as rich — with sadness, suffering, happiness, joy, despair and hope present — as the worlds I was accustomed to. But as fun as it was to be with them, I always sensed in my friends, who were all accomplished professionals or entrepreneurs, a tinge of sorrow. Clearly, this came from a common experience of discrimination and rejection. I know these US Supreme Court decisions will not end that experience but it is a start. They are not just academic texts for me (although I will discuss them with my Theory of Law students in Ateneo Law School). Because tonight, I see faces – and they are smiling.”

This experience of living and forging bonds of friendship with homosexuals marked me forever. I realized then that my friends and I, by then young professionals making our way in the world, were equally human, equally possessed of the same emotional capacities and logical reasoning, equally existing and fighting to exist in life, in the world at large.

The only real difference between us who shared meals and conversation, hopes and dreams, was the gender (and gender orientation) of those with whom we forged our romantic and, yes, sexual relations.

Yet that difference was enough to drive a wedge, whether visible or invisible, between the gay and lesbian communities and their straight counterparts the world over.

At its worst, homosexuals were ridiculed, made the butt of jokes, forced out of their chosen jobs and homes because of the discomforts of their peers and neighbors. Nazi Germany persecuted them precisely for not conforming to the Aryan mainstream. Yet even in benign societies, many still didn’t feel accepted, because they could not enjoy the fullness of their identity, the richness of their relationships, because their unions could not be recognized by their host societies. They couldn’t, in short, marry the ones they love like any other citizen of any other country in the world.

And in being denied this, even for reasons without malice, gays and lesbians naturally still felt segregated from the rest of the world. Because they love, as all humans love, and they could not pursue this love to its conclusion. Any romantic will know the pain of this denial—it’s a pain that cuts deep, more so because the cut is delivered by societal opinion expressed as the state’s family policy.

It’s this pain I’ve seen in my gay housemates of years gone by—“a tinge of sorrow,” I called it on Facebook. It’s this pain that’s driven the campaign for the legalization of gay marriage, and resistance to DOMA and California’s Proposition 8 (which sought the same thing, and which met the same end before the Supreme Court although for procedural grounds) in the US.

Granted, a legal marriage comes with all the legal rights and benefits granted to married couples, and their denial to homosexuals is one of the reasons for both the campaign and the decision, but it’s not solely, or even largely about the material aspects of marriage. True love is after all not for money, but for love. And need we quote Pascal: that the heart has reasons reason itself cannot understand?

So on a deeply personal level, this Supreme Court decision is good news, because now where US states do allow so, gays and lesbians can exercise the fullness of their sexual identity, and dismantle what is perhaps the last legal prop of the pain and separation they felt from society. That, perhaps, the pain I saw in the eyes of my former housemates could now become just a memory. And I appreciated this happiness as one dedicated to the recognition and defense of our rights and our dignity, but also as a friend to my former housemates: equally human, both of us.

We could now set aside the pain, and the barriers, and live in that love we felt, with the ones we love. I must emphasize: this is a good thing, not just for gays, but for all of us, a just and human society.

A Catholic perspective

My positive stance towards the legalization of gay marriage is by no means a belief that the opposition of the Catholic Church is unwarranted. Neither do I believe, like some radical critics of the Church would hold, that this would equate to a practical “gag order” on religiously-motivated opposition.

To be specific, I speak of a faith-based opposition that nonetheless remains respectful of homosexuals, not that of those (such as the so-called “Westboro Baptist Church” that pickets funerals of US soldiers to protest the recognition of gay rights by the US military) that claim to act in the name of faith, but are all too willing to denigrate the God-given dignity inherent in all persons, homosexuals included.

I’ve made an observation in my previous commentary on the Reproductive Health Bill, and it also applies here in gay marriage: the Catholic Church’s opposition is drawn from a common foundation: “the natural and causal linkage between sex and conception of human life, to which the Church is thus obligated to defend as a consequence of the sacredness of human life.”

Human sexuality and sexual identity are held to a divine as well as a natural purpose and standard—as is the resulting family unit. If the Church has been, at the least, concerned with gay marriage legalization, it is so out of an honest obligation to protect the integrity of the family unit, and of procreation.

As I’ve observed, it’s a beautiful message that too often gets lost in the debate.

Some of the Church’s fiercest critics would rather object to it, believing it institutional hypocrisy, especially in the wake of the clergy pedophilia scandal, or perhaps more recently, their criticisms of a certain GMA network TV show. And Church leaders have sometimes used imprudent choices of words in their criticisms.

Yet it’s by no means hypocrisy: some of the most faithful Catholics (or even other Christians) I’ve known have also been faithful family men and women, looking to the faith as strength and guide. And the Church is entitled to hold to this message, and to defend it by all reasonable and respectful means—thus the US bishops’ criticism of the US Supreme Court following the DOMA ruling.

As much as this continuing objection saddens and frustrates gay marriage advocates, I hope they’ll understand, or at least accept, that this is an objection not made out of malice. Some people I know, who I know love and accept their gay friends as much as I do, are genuinely offended by the use of “marriage” for the relationships between homosexuals believing that there is a difference between heterosexual and homosexual unions, without one being superior to the other.

The key is the latter phrase; it is unfortunate that the concept of civil unions, in an earlier time proposed as an alternative legal bond available for gay and lesbian couples, was rejected because of hardline and uncompromising opposition by conservatives as well as the perception among homosexuals that this was inferior to marriage.

This religious conviction admittedly doesn’t sit easily with the conviction that homosexual union legalization acknowledges and upholds the humanity of gays and lesbians.

Yet I believe they can sit together, even if in a tenuous peace.

Consider what Bishop Armando Ochoa of Fresno, California had rightly pointed out: the state’s recognition of homosexual unions doesn’t mandate the Church to extend the same theological recognition. Moreover, I believe our Catholic obligations include a respect for all people whatever their differences, including gender, and also respect (even a respectful dissent) for the laws that encourage and mandate that respect—just as I also believe that the state has the obligation to defend the rights and freedoms of all people, even when they be on opposing sides of policy or faith.

Love and dissent

There is no easy resolution of this conflict between two irreconcilable views of sexual identity raised in the gay marriage debate. If the debate ever erupts before our own Supreme Court, to reiterate, perhaps all that can be wished for is a tenuous peace.

Under our system, the constitutional provisions on marriage and the family are formidable obstacles for recognizing same-sex marriages. At the same time, social and cultural acceptance of these unions is increasing everywhere and the Philippines is not going to be exempted from this global trend. In the end, as what happened to me, as many others who have friends and family members who are gay, it is the personal experiences and relationships of people that will matter most.

I hold and pray that it can be a fruitful peace: that homosexuals can still seek equal recognition before all society, and that the Catholic Church and others still defend the divine purpose of heterosexual marriage—without the two coming to blows or trading insults—as has happened, and threatens to happen still, on this and other issues.

I can be grateful that the pain I’ve seen in the eyes of gays and lesbians can be wiped away, and yet also be proud of the beauty of the Church’s position on human sexuality. If this contradiction of positions discomforts some of my readers, I do apologize.

But in the end, I don’t come looking for a fight over love. I believe we simply just have to love, even when we dissent. It’s a love that’s unfortunately rare in today’s world. –

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