The debate around same sex marriage in Australia is on again, particularly in the wake of the Irish referendum. Irish revellers took to the streets last week as the yes vote resounded around the country with 62% of voters in favour of allowing marriage between people of the same sex. Ireland joins another 21 countries that either fully or at least in some states support same sex marriage (http://goo.gl/IIBUvu). In my view it is time as a society and as people of faith to let the LGBTI community out of the closet once and for all.
The political journey towards same sex marriage
In Australia we have been slow to join the rainbow parade and sanction same sex marriage, despite the legislative pathway being relatively simple. Like so many other significant issues, that we as a nation need to tackle, gay marriage has become politicised. In an article in ‘The Conversation’ Carol Johnson from University of Adelaide outlines the political roadblocks (https://goo.gl/V03jmy). Firstly, with no definition of marriage in Australian Federal legislation, the Howard government introduces legislation in 2004 banning same sex marriage. Howard’s hope was to use a ‘values’ issue to sway conservative Labor voters. Labor agreed with the legislation and it became law as they feared losing the worker vote in Sydney’s west.
Politicians on both sides of the fence were compelled by binding votes to remain loyal to the spoken view of the party. Thus we saw examples where Penny Wong (a known Lesbian) needed to walk a fine line between her own views and that of her political affiliates. Also Australia does not have a charter of human rights, which played a significant role in bringing same sex marriage to Canada. So it was left to the minor parties and gay and lesbian activists to advocate for same sex marriage, hoping to change the views of the major party politicians. The closest the activists have come to success so far is Kevin Rudd’s recognition that same-sex relationships need to be seen legally the same as hetero-sexual defacto relationships. The definition of marriage was not on the table, which helped to reassure socially conservative and religious voters.
Most recently Labor has changed its platform, now supporting same sex marriage. Rudd on his return in 2013 saw that the church and the state can have different policies on marriage in a secular society. At this point when there was a vote in parliament around these issues, Labor was given a conscience vote, which showed the separation between church and state was not complete, with the vote being defeated.
One comment coming from Johnson is that in Australia the issue has religious framing and has not been fought so much on the grounds of equality. If equality had been the focus, it may have had a quicker path through the parliament. This is where events in Ireland are so important, if a country so steeped in Catholicism can support same sex marriage by a 62-38 majority, we need to acknowledge that times are changing.
Understanding the gay and lesbian journey
Last week, The Australian Christians political party posted on Facebook; “’Progressive’ Christians are destroying Christianity, churches and traditional ethos. You may know them by their support of euthanasia, abortion, redefining marriage, legalising of illicit drugs, severe political correctness and their support of the Greens agenda. We must unite to defend true Christianity and all life, giving true liberty to our society.” Firstly, talk with most ‘progressive’ Christians and they will tell you that their convictions are not as black and white as portrayed by this statement and in fact they may support some of the list but not other parts and for a whole range of reasons. Categorisation and broad statements never reveal the truth of a position and the complexity of the human psyche in coming to that position.
Secondly the Australian Christians is a political party that somehow have gained the opinion that they have the ability and right to declare who is a ‘true Christian’ ie those who think like they do from those who are damaging the faith. Throughout history when political parties have made declarations of this ilk, it has always been dangerous. A view expressed in this way tends to shut down conversation and prevent the true meeting of those who see the world differently so the gift the other has can’t be shared.
The sharing of gift in terms of presence, perspective, search for mutual understanding is something that has repeatedly gone missing in the debate around gay and lesbian sexuality and indeed same sex marriage. I feel heavy as I think of the damage done to countless individuals as they struggled with their same sex attraction. They only found more pain and heartache if they were gutsy enough to speak to a youth pastor or church leader. Being confronted with ‘the fact’ that their orientation was a sin. Then those that truly ‘wanted to change’ (ie the cultural pressure being too much, the cost of staying out, too high, belief that being heterosexual was the only way to be acceptable to God) were led to an ex-gay ministry. Where for many the light at the end of the tunnel was a freight train. Some even became so desperate about not being able to turn the gay off that they contemplated, attempted with some even succeeding in committing suicide.
Anthony Venn-Brown a former Pentecostal preacher and now gay ambassador got to a point where he felt he couldn’t lie to his church, his family or himself anymore and admitted that he was a gay man. In 2007 Venn-Brown appeared on 60 minutes with a live online chat following the program (http://goo.gl/4BtWP3). During that chat he talks about what it was like coming out. He states that for him coming out was not an empowering experience but more a reluctant acceptance of his sexuality. It would take a further 6 years for him to celebrate his identity. He talks about losing everything, but yet gaining a peace and sense of resolution. ‘Had I known earlier that I could live a happy fulfilled life as a gay man, I probably would have made that choice a lot earlier.’
During the online conversation Venn-Brown was asked where he stood with his Christian faith and if he attended church, loved God, followed Jesus. ‘ Yes, initially I thought my choice was to be heterosexual and a Christian or to be homosexual and go to Hell… I now understand that my morality is a choice, my sexual orientation however isn’t. Today I have the most amazing relationship with God that I’ve ever had. Something I thought would never be possible.’ He goes on to make a comment about the homosexual vs Christian debate; ‘(It’s) actually over… There are pockets of controversy, and some denominations that are tackling the issue, but critical mass has already been reached. The rainbow revival has begun.’
Picking up Venn-Brown’s point about orientation, the American Psychological Association (APA) states that sexual orientation refers to an enduring pattern of emotional, romantic and / or sexual attractions to men, women or both sexes (http://goo.gl/eYz1BB). In terms of what causes a particular sexual orientation there is no consensus among scientists. It is most likely a complex mix of genetic, hormonal, developmental, social and cultural influences. Both nature and nurture potentially playing a role in sexual orientation. The most important contribution that the APA play in this conversation is they state; ‘…most people experience little or no sense of choice about their sexual orientation.’
The Australian Psychological Society (APS) (http://goo.gl/P6EmyX) agrees with this stance, strongly opposing any view that lesbians, gay men and bisexuals are suffering a disorder associated with their sexual orientation. They rightly also oppose any approach to practice or research that attempts to change that orientation, these interventions are often referred to as reparative or conversion therapies (including ex-gay ministries). In their position paper on same sex orientation they state there is ‘no psychological research objectively documenting the ability to ‘change’ an individual’s sexual orientation.’ Empirical evidence shows that attempts to change sexual orientation can be harmful. Research conducted in 2002 reported that ‘conversion therapy’ resulted in psychological harm (including depression, suicidal ideation, reduced self esteem, sexual dysfunction), interpersonal harm (including social isolation, loss of social supports, damage to intimate relationships) and spiritual harm (including a loss of faith, sense of betrayal by religious leaders and excommunication).
Most prominent ex-gay movements have ceased operation for these reasons added to which they have been banned in some countries around the world. Unfortunately in Australia they subtly still exist in the form of emphasis and influence, mainly from church communities. Again my heart breaks at the damage that continues to be done.
A Personal Reflection
For me personally these simple, yet well researched, statements take sin off the table as far as same sex attraction is concerned. Sexual orientation is not a choice, therefore it is something created by God and needs to be recognised as such. Venn-Brown raises an excellent distinction between orientation and morals. There may not be a choice about which gender you are attracted to, however what you do with that attraction is the issue. Reflecting biblically, the weight of the biblical story comes down to love, which in this conversation, talks about committed relationships, whether they are heterosexual or homosexual in nature.
For those of faith how are we to respond? I realise all this can be confronting and can certainly shake our theology and tradition. Taking all the above into account what we have in front of us is an issue of equality. According to Tania a Churches of Christ minister, people of same sex orientation, who are in a committed marriage like relationship need to have the same legal standing as people in hetero-sexual unions. This will enable them to be present in the case of serious medical issues and point of death, as well as receive the rights accorded to ‘widows / widowers.’
Tania believes that as people of faith our key responsibility is to love others as we love ourselves, this calls us to look after and stand up for those who are oppressed in any way. Johann Arnold in his book Seeking Peace agrees. He writes;
In Psalm 85 we read, ‘Justice and peace shall kiss; truth shall rise up, and righteousness smile down from heaven.’ If we have faith in this promise – if we believe that these words can become reality, not only in some glorious hereafter, but on this earth – then we must be willing to risk everything. We must reject injustice in every form, whether economic exploitation, social inequality, racial division or political oppression.
Tania continues and I agree, that as faith communities we need to look at the bible as a whole story and not a grab bag of proof texts. As we do this we see overwhelmingly that that our stance is to be one of inclusivity, that all people are welcome to find a home with God.
A Final Word
Some in the conservative camp have expressed concerns about same sex couples raising children. In 2011 in Australia there were 6,120 children under the age of 25 living with same sex couples. Melbourne University spearheaded the world’s most comprehensive study into the health of children living in these environments (http://goo.gl/eddGxC). They are the first to admit limitations to the study and that it was based on parent reporting. However the overwhelming indication is that these children are faring well on most measures of child health and wellbeing. Fascinatingly the households demonstrate higher levels of family cohesion than other population samples. A core concern were the negative effects on wellbeing as a result of stigma, even when seeking healthcare. This points to the need for societal and policy change, not the effect of being raised in a same sex household per’se.
Tania’s right when she says the issue comes down to love. If same sex couples are prepared to love a child then they should be allowed to express that love, even if it involves surrogacy. In the midst of this the important thing is for children to be exposed to not only loving parents (same or different sex) but a loving community where they can be nurtured by both men and women, exposed to different views and allowed to grow to reach their potential.
Drawing all these threads together, I believe; sexual orientation is not a choice, the damage caused by reparative therapy and ex-gay ministries is widespread and well documented, the call from God is to love and be inclusive, the wellbeing of children of same sex couples is generally very high… so, as a society and as a people of faith more specifically, it is definitely time to let the LGBTI community out of the closet once and for all.
I want to acknowledge, as with so many other complex issues this is just the tip of the iceberg. In coming weeks I plan to explore same sex relationships from a number of different perspectives, hopefully opening the door to more conversation and more understanding.