Same sex marriage – the govt. consults with religious leaders

On the morning of Thursday 12 April, I attended a session of the Parliamentary hearings into the propsed same-sex marriage Bills currently under consideration in the Federal House of Representatives (http://www.aph.gov.au/Parliamentary_Business/Committees/House_of_Representatives_Committees?url=spla/bill%20marriage/hearings.htm). There are two Bills under consideration, both of which provide for same sex marriage in somewhat different ways. We didn’t go into the differences between the Bills.

Present were representatives of the Lutheran Church, Australian Catholic Bishops Conference (Bishop Julian Porteus), Salvation Army, Anglican Church Diocese of Sydney, Sikh Council of Australia, Hindu Council of Australia, Seventh-day Adventist Church, and Progressive Judaism. The Musilm community was conspicuous in its absence; presumably because they didn’t respond to the invitation, rather than that they were not invited. Of those present, the Buddhists, Hindus, and Jews supported the marriage equality Bills, while the remainder opposed.

The discussion is part of a series of community consultations held by the House Standing Committee on Social Policy and Legal Affairs. The Committee acknowledged that they had their own opinions on the matter—one of them had proposed one of the Bills, whereas another member stated he was a Catholic who opposed the Bills—but their job was to enquire as to community views and report to parliament, not to decide the matter themselves. They set the course of the discussion by insisting that we speak only when asked a question. If we interrupted, we would be asked to leave. Right, then.

The basic question the panel asked of us all was: what is our position, and what is the basic theological or scriptural reason for that. Each of us had submitted papers prior to the hearing, so we did not need to go into details. The anti- positions were based on readings of the Bible, insisting that the story of Adam and Eve, whether read literally (as per the 7th Day Adventists) or metaphorically, set up the basic paradigm for human relationships. We heard time and again that God had ordained the timeless, eternal institution of marriage. We also heard—and this was a cornerstone of the argument from both the Catholics and Anglicans—that their normative form of marriage—one man, one woman, and children—was fixed in biology. Of course, they did not want to reduce marriage to biology, but nevertheless, there was a powerful sense in which having children by sexual union was fundamental to their conception of marriage.

This begs the fairly obvious question, does this mean that all marriages must produce, or at least have the potential to produce, children? When the pollies asked this of the Catholics and Anglicans, we heard a fair bit of what the suttas call eel-wriggling. When asked whether they would marry, say, a couple of seventy year olds, Bishop Porteus said he would. There was a subtle not quite suggestion that there was maybe some possibility of such a union producing children.

At this point I really wanted to interrupt, but managed to restrain myself. For the Christian tradition does indeed have a powerful precedent for such a situation. Genesis 17-18 tells of how Sarah, though 90 years old, was granted a child by God with her centenarian husband Abraham. Even more striking is the case of Mary, who Catholics believe had a child without having had intercourse at all. It strikes me that a God who is powerful enough to perform such miracles should have no problem in blessing a gay or lesbian couple with children. But perhaps miracles don’t work today as well as they should…

The Progressive Jewish representative also based his case on the Bible. But rather than arguing that Adam and Eve must be the archetype for all marriages, he pointed out that Adam and Eve were not married at all; and that the Bible in fact lays down no normative marriage ceremonies. This reminded me of the old Pali text the Kathavatthu, where Buddhists from different schools argued over fine points of doctrine, always agreeing on what the basic scriptures were, but always disagreeing about how to interpret them.

I heard a lot of talk about what ‘God had ordained’, a lot of talk about how things were and always had been and always must be: but I heard no talk of compassion. So I stuck my hand up and pointed this out. From a Buddhist perspectice, we look at what actually causes harm. We look at how people suffer. And our ethical guidelines are informed by the realities of peoples lives, not by some abstract notion of how things are.

And the simple reality is that gay and lesbian people suffer a lot. All manner of discrimination and social stigma still surrounds this issue, despite the very real progress that has been made. There are multiple lines of evidence that suggest that the effect of legalizing same sex marriage is to reduce the incidence of anxiety and stress in the gay community. It’s also been reported that, contrary to the predictations of the alarmists, the incidence of AIDS declines; which should be obvious, as marriage equality is not about encouraging homosexuality, it’s about encouraging commitment.

It seems I may have struck a nerve, for after the event when the press was interviewing us I heard Bishop Porteus speaking quite heatedly about the compassionate work of the Catholic Church for LGBT community in the fields of HIV and the like. No doubt this is true, but it misses the point. I wasn’t arguing that the Catholics (and other groups) weren’t compassionate towards the LGBT community. That’s a different point altogether, which was not the topic of the conversation. I was arguing that the reasons they had given to oppose same sex marriage were not compassionate. That’s not controversial, it was a simple observation about what had actually been said at the meeting.

When the faith leaders were asked why they opposed same sex marriage, not a single one of them expressed any compassion for the LGBT community. Not one. They might be the most compassionate people in the world, but compassion does not underlie their policy on same sex marriage.

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7 thoughts on “Same sex marriage – the govt. consults with religious leaders

  1. Hi Bhante,

    since no-one has commented on this I wanted to take the opportunity to do so – thankyou for your ongoing work in regard to same-sex marriage. I am interested in one point – did the Sikh community oppose SSM?

    It’s quite interesting that the anti-camp would use biological/scientific discourse to oppose SSM – one might think that essentially they’re digging their own graves that way, by suggesting that, finally, science/biology is a higher arbiter than religion.

    I think it’s important to argue that legalising same-sex marriage will not increase the incidence of STDs (particularly HIV/AIDS) because of ‘acceptance of the homosexual lifestyle,’ but it’s also important to recognise that the paradigm underlying that is one that ‘promiscuity’ is wrong and harmful, that the ‘gay lifestyle’ is one of promiscuity (or more promiscuity than the ‘straight lifestyle’) and therefore ‘gayness’ should not be ‘encouraged’ on that basis (sorry for all the scare quotes but I think they’re necessary).

    But we should recognise that not all queer people who gay marry (if and when possible), and not all straights at present, believe in monogamy as part of marriage. So we should ‘decouple,’ so to speak, the idea that marriage will increase monogamy. It’s certainly about a commitment, but not necessarily or always that particular commitment!

    I see lots of Buddhist teachers who I generally like and agree with, arguing that the fourth precept means that sex should only take place within a loving, monogamous and committed relationship – and I don’t agree with that (also, as you’ve pointed out earlier, this was not the model in the Buddha’s time). Personally I think the trend toward non-monogamy in ‘alternative’ and queer circles is problematic, but not because it’s somehow immoral or because it’s always inherently against the precept – rather, because I think it speaks to a capitalist paradigm of instant gratification, and freedom as fredom in the marketplace and freedom from obligation, which impoverishes human relationships.

    Non-monogamous sexual relationships, encounters and acts have their own dangers, not least of which is using others instrumentally (though some might argue that this is OK, as long as you are not harming them in the process). But there are also problems and dangers around sexual expression within the idealised framework of a committed, monogamous intimate relationship, as anyone who’s been in one will know.

    My own solution is for the state to stop recognising marriage – people should be free to do whatever they like according to their religious or cultural traditions, but I don’t at all understand what role the state has recongising that two people have made a commitment to each other as intimate partners. Although there are much worse forms of discrimination, obviously, this sometimes amounts to discrimination against singles, aprticularly in economic terms. But since that doesn’t seem likely to happen anytime soon, in a pragmatic sense I support SSM, despite the problems with the model around things like heteronormativitgy, a ‘place at the table’ model for queers and other minorities, and the conceptual relationship between marriage and property.

    Incidentally, there’s also an interesting point here about what the meaning of ‘compassion’ might actually be, and how we could know whether it is being practised or not from the ‘outside.’

    With metta,

    Rowan.

    • Rowan,

      I have been on the outside of some queer non-monogamous communities in NYC, and have thought a bit about this in the context of compassion and perhaps also Buddhism. Non-monogamy takes many forms, and some part of it is certainly sexual gratification. Another, however, is that of erasing distinctions between a primary lover and other people. In the words of Dean Spade: “to try to treat the people I date more like I treat my friends—try to be respectful and thoughtful and have boundaries and reasonable expectations—and to try to treat my friends more like my dates—to give them special attention, honor my commitments to them, be consistent, and invest deeply in our futures together. In the queer communities I’m in, valuing friendship is a really big deal, often coming out of the fact that lots of us don’t have family support, and build deep supportive structures with other queers”.

      Spade goes on in that essay to describe a very nice subway metta practice: to look on each person riding the subway and imagine “what they look like to someone who is totally in love with them. I think everyone has had someone look at them that way, whether it was a lover, or a parent, or a friend, whether they know it or not. It’s a wonderful thing, to look at someone to whom I would never be attracted and think about what looking at them feels like to someone who is devouring every part of their image, who has invisible strings that are connected to this person tied to every part of their body….”

      Another writer I like and who also seems inspired by Buddhist ideas is Wendy-O Matik. She wrote: “There are a thousand or more ways to be loving with someone: cuddling, handholding, listening, writing a letter”. They redefine “making love” as a way of being fully present for someone, whether it is washing a disabled parent, sharing an intense conversation, or gaciously receiving a sandwich from a homeless person that one has befriended. It is about decoupling intimacy from the physical act of sex, and from being reserved only for one’s romantic partner.

      Both these writers seem to show a side of non-monogamy that, rather than impoverishing human relationships, seems to celebrate them in ways that pop-cultural fixation on sex and serially-monogamous romance does not.

      I agree with you that state-granted rights about property, child custody, hospital visitation, medical decisions, insurance, etc should be completely de-coupled from marriage. And I agree that until such a time, marriage should be opened up to non-heterosexuals.

    • The state has an important stake in recognizing marriage because of its property ownership and legal implications.

      For example in the past non-married couples who split up, even if they had been together for decades, could end up with the non-earning member of the relationship getting nothing. That has changed and living together for an extended time is now recognized as being married for property division – but not (as far as I am aware) if you are a gay couple.

      Another example is where next of kin have rights over a sick or injured person – if you are not legally married another family member could usurp your claim to act in your partner’s best interests.

      I am sure there are other instances. That is of course why we (and witnesses) sign a marriage license – it is a state recognized binding contract.

  2. Bhante,

    Is it only compassion (karuna, as I understand it) that is at stake? Or is it also a failure to have muditha for those that we do not culturally identify with? Is the happiness and relationship-stability of a non-heterosexual union something that the anti-marriage groups are not allowing themselves to take joy in? Couldn’t they too, simply be happier if they shared in others joy rather than fighting against it?

    I am only starting to add metta as a part of my practice, and I see that I often easily fall into feeling “compassion for” rather than “joy for”. Often when I feel compassion for another being, there are also things that I could feel muditha for: that being’s resilience and strength, ability to thrive, ability to feel joy in adverse situations, etc. I feel sometimes that compassion has the trap sometimes of fixating too much on the perception of another’s suffering, and not enough on their own resources and strengths.

    “Eel wriggling”. That’s an analogy that makes me smile!

    • I agree completely. Compassion, in cases such as these, is really just a bare minimum. With compassion, people can become more tolerant. But tolerance is hardly the be all and end all. What about celebration? What about having some gratitude and appreciation for the GLBT community and all the others who, through their bravery under persecution, have helped us all to broaden our awareness and deepen our understanding of what it means to be human? Go mudita, all the way!

    • Yes, great point, Hope.

      I went on a retreat earlier this year where we practiced the Brahma viharas – ie, metta, karuna, mudita and upekkha (loving-kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy and equanimity). When discussing mudita, the teacher brought up the idea that mudita might be the necessary foundation for practicing all the rest. That’s just one perspective, but it does make some sense to me. I realised that in my own practice I’ve tended to focus a lot on metta and karuna, which both involve wishing for a change in the person you are sending this energy to – may you be happy (ie happier), may you be free (ie freer) from suffering. For me, I think there’s a danger here of becoming a bit willful and egotistic, wanting to be the one who makes the positive change for the other person. Whereas with mudita, it’s clearer that the change required is primarily in oneself. The other person is fine as they are. I’m the one who needs to change – to cultivate the ability to take joy in the other’s resources and resilience (and general fabulousness), as you point out. Arguably, unless that change takes place so that there’s a real respect and appreciation for the other as they are, a sound basis for practicing metta or karuna is not in place.

    • The fact that some marriages are childless or others produce offspring rather late is more an anomaly than a reason to question the main run of marriage structure being the norm for society. I doubt that ANY married couple think positive ill of other sexual orientations and have human compassion for them in their fix viz. society- even though they may not understand all the arguments for and against liberalisation.
      The exception proves the rule, as always, and it’s easy to get cross connected between social acceptance and ‘otherness’ being mutually inclusive rather.than exclusive. Society needs workable ‘norms’.
      If laws are changed, society will change- and who knows what the result will be?
      I recall Germany in the 30s….there are parallels.

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