The issue of the legal status of gay marriages (also referred to as same-sex marriages, or SSM) triggers heated debates in many countries of the world, with people of different age, religion, worldviews and social status getting involved in them and expressing a variety of opinions. The controversies and uncompromising attitudes towards opponents maintaining different stances on this problem make it one of the most critical in the life of the entire global community at the current stage of its development. Conflicts arise over different aspects of same-sex couple relationships and the position of other people towards them. Intolerance in this sphere is due to basic differences in political, social, religious, and ethical principles that have been upheld by different nations and communities for centuries. Homosexuality and same-sex relationships or even marriages resulting from it are the issues that have been known since long before our time; some ethnic groups had them not only in the form of informal relationships but in ritualized unions as well (Herdt). However, the attitude to these practices of both the public and official institutions was strongly negative; it was only recently that these views changed, causing new debates, conflicts, and controversies.
The involvement of various public organizations, movements, political or religious leaders and the attention of the public at large, from celebrities to average individuals, is, on the one hand, the evidence of a keen interest in the problem and the realization of the fact that it needs to be addressed and handled unlike it used to be. On the other hand, this interest demonstrates that people concerned with this problem want to be confident that human rights are not discriminated in this sphere and society is capable of developing tolerance towards people who are different from the prevalent and generally accepted standards. Realizing that “the cultural reality of sexual meaning, in a pluralistic and complex society such as our own, is a matter of politics, of competing social interests” (Herdt xi), many countries today attempt to legalize SSM and grant them equal rights with marriages between man and woman. Therefore, SSM legalization is a process aimed at promoting respect for human rights in the particularly sensitive sphere that involves various legal, cultural, religious, social and ethical aspects that are reviewed in the following sections of the essay.
The Legal Status of Same Sex Marriages: Innovations and Challenges
Over the period of many centuries, official institutions, laws, religion, and public opinion were unanimous in their rejection of any same-sex relationships branding them as criminal actions or practices. Such relations, either informal or having any semblance of legitimacy, were merely isolated examples that could in no way change the general situation. It was only recently that the recognition of SSM started to be actually implemented in different countries, although the problem of whether such a marriage can be regarded as equal to a heterosexual one and granted appropriate rights remains unresolved. A number of other challenging legal issues are in the focus of debates, and these are related not only to the rights of homosexual couples but also to those of children that can be born to one member of the couple or those that such couples have adopted or intend to adopt.
The first question to be answered concerning the legitimacy of proposed SSM is whether these should be granted the same legal status as heterosexual marriages or supposed to enjoy only limited rights. A different status, for example, can be that of a civil union, and then it will impose clear-cut limitations on such marriages. Moreover, debates are going on the issue of whether the term “marriage” itself can be applied to define same-sex unions. The opponents of using the term claim that the meaning of the word is explicit in its relation to the union of only man and woman and, in addition, emphasizes the important consequence of creating such a union for having children and raising them, not only for satisfying sexual desires of the couple. Proponents of SSM point out that the definition of the family should be extended in such a manner as not to limit the rights of homosexuals who constitute about 10 per cent of the entire human population. These people, as proponents of SSM claim, are denied important human rights, for example, related to property, inheritance, insurance, and others. Statements of the American Psychological Association based on their recent research support SSM by claiming that “anything other than marriage is, in essence, a stigmatization of same-sex couples” (Levine). APA points out that stigmatization of gay and lesbian couples have negative impacts on people.
Progress in the sphere of granting same-sex couples the right to marry or legally form civil unions has been impressing in recent years, despite the fact that in the USA many states outlawed SSM. The list of places across the world where the situation concerning SSM has changed includes countries on different continents and of various historical or cultural traditions. In Canada, for example, gays and lesbians can get married in any place. The fact that no residency requirement is imposed gives claimants a free hand; however, the CanadianSSM can be unrecognized in other countries. In Sweden, SSM were legalized in 2009. Couples that are currently in civil partnership may have their relations registered as marriage. Similar legal regulations have been introduced by Norway, the Netherlands, Belgium, Iceland, Spain, Portugal, Argentina, and some other countries. South Africa’s legislation not only legalized SSM but also provides equal rights to marriage for heterosexual and homosexual couples. There are, however, legislative differences concerning the right to adopt children. In Belgium, gay and lesbian couples have been granted such a right while in Portugal they are not allowed to do that (Belgy).
In the United States, same-sex marriages can be legally exercised in such states as New Hampshire, New York, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Iowa, and Vermont, and Washington, DC. An alternative to marriage as an official form of family in some countries are civil unions or domestic partnership agreements between people of the same sex (Belgy). All these legislative modifications introduced in recent years convincingly prove that human civilization moves towards a more tolerant and liberal attitude in respect of same-sex relations and intends to codify it in legislative regulations and laws.
The problem of adopting children by same-sex couples is, however, a stumbling block that turns out to be a highly controversial and complex issue. In addition to problems with adoption, nowadays new biological technologies make it possible to apply the methods of reproduction that seemed impossible and unbelievable not so many years ago. Therefore, a desire to have children in same-sex marriages may come true with the involvement of surrogate mothers and other innovative techniques. The idea of the problem’s significance is convincingly demonstrated by the fact that in 2008 about 116,000 same-sex couples were raising the total of about 250,000 children (Wildman E1). These children, just like their same-sex parents, regard the laws prohibiting SSM as a form of discrimination. Therefore, gay-rights organizations and activists are determined to pursue the issue through the judiciary system and make it finally adopt the law, by resorting to rallies or lawsuits if need be (Wildman E1).
Opponents of same-sex marriage are wholeheartedly against raising children in gay or lesbian families and believe that children should not get the idea that same-sex and straight relationships are equal. Moreover, people upholding such views believe that children raised by gay and lesbian parents are underprivileged by the very fact of belonging to such a family as they are unable to get what other children are provided in families created by a man and a woman. Supporters of SSM not only claim that gay or lesbian couples should have the rights to adopt children but are determined to protect the rights of children in such families. Referring to their commitment to a child-centered approach, they say that the lack of marriage benefits for parents of such families affects children’s rights. The issue that is causing debates in different states, for example, Iowa and New Jersey, is also closely related to ethical and social, particularly demographic aspects, with religious denominations having their say in the matter.
Religious aspects: a firm stand versus a liberal approach
Different religions have considered homosexual relations as a sin for many centuries, and most of the church authorities would not be swayed on this significant point. For example, the opinion of the Catholic Church was expressed by Pope John Paul II who defined homosexual marriages as “part of “a new ideology of evil” that is insidiously threatening society” (Pullella A14). The official position of the Catholic Church is that “pressures” on the European Parliament to legalize SSM is an attempt “to pit human rights against the family and against man” (Pullella A14).
Traditional negative opinions have been countered by certain Protestant denominations, for example, the Metropolitan Community Church or Presbyterian Church in the USA. This modified, gay- and lesbian-friendly stance of the church has been developed, practiced and conceptualized on the basis of a more extended and, as these congregations’ members claim, truer and more humanistic understanding or interpretation of the Bible. The US Presbyterian church has approved of the ordination of non-celibate gays. While many Christian denominations demonstrate different attitudes to homosexuality, from rejecting it as sinful to a sufficiently tolerant or accepting, proponents of developing a different view of it offer their own interpretations. For example, they claim that God created some people to be homosexual and, as a result, they have their desires as a kind of biological “disorder.” Having been made this way, they are tempted to behave as homosexuals and it is beyond their will or power to control these desires. Moreover, acting against human nature, according to the Metropolitan Community Church, would amount to an attempt to deceive God, which is a sin.
Demonstrating how the literal interpretation of the Bible corrupts its meaning and serves abusive, socially- and politically-biased positions. ministers of the Presbyterian Church referred to conceptual principles, as well as life stories of people who suffered from unjust attitudes of society. Jack Rogers takes as an example earlier theological interpretations of the Bible, namely those presented by James Henley Thornwell, a college pastor and later professor of theology at Columbia Theological Seminary who in the 19th century justified slavery as sanctioned by the word of God and the hierarchal social system constructed by the Lord. Next, the Presbyterian minister draws a parallel between Thornwell’s interpretation of the Scriptures and current patterns of some theological judgments on homosexuality and SSM (Rogers 33). Pointing out that at present most Christians are opposed to racial or gender discrimination that used to be popular not so long ago, J. Rogers believes that the necessary reinterpretation of radical and fundamentalists’ doctrines enables “the Church to move forward in a renewed commitment to Christ” (Rogers 37). These attempts of the new understanding on the part of the church are in line with certain steps taken by politicians although the actual goals of the latter may be basically different.
Political and Social Aspects of Same-Sex Marriages
The positions and attitudes of politicians to SSM are clearly a reflection of their pursuit of the goal of winning the votes of the electorate; however, the evolution of these positions within previously undivided party groups is also the evidence of the processes ongoing in society. President Obama and Democrats have been repeatedly criticized for supporting the idea of SSM legalization, while Republicans have been known as a party opposed to this step. However, today even GOP is not unanimous in its position; for example, Former Vice President Dick Cheney said that he supported gays’ rights to marriage and that states but not the federal government had to make decisions on whether to introduce SSM or not (Gay Marriage Divides GOP). There can be doubts as to what motivates such a stance, a sincere concern for granting all people free and equal rights or a desire to win the loyalty of potential voters. Some Republicans came out with a statement that the radically negative position on SSM demonstrated by their party was based on irrational beliefs and was likely to be harmful for the party’s reputation. Whatever the motives may be, such examples prove that politicians who used to be convinced supporters of traditional views on the family nowadays move towards a more tolerant and accepting approaches. A Constitutional Amendment might have resolved the issue but there still seems a long way to go before such a step could be actually implemented. For this to be the case, public opinion about same-sex couples should also change and become more tolerant. With complex and controversial approaches to SSM by different professional, social, religious, political and social groups, the general trend, as can be concluded from the overview, is towards developing a more tolerant and accepting attitude towards the family by seeing homosexual standards as something that has the right to exist and legally practiced.
The problem of same-sex marriages and their legalization is one of the most complex and controversial issues that human civilization is confronted with at this stage of its progress. New dimensions are being continuously added due to various stimuli related to social, religious, political, and other spheres of people’s lives. Having been branded as unacceptable and sinful for centuries, the idea of same-sex couples having a civil union has acquired a new meaning nowadays when gay and lesbian couples across the world fight against what they see as their human and civil rights discrimination. This quest has already resulted in important changes adopted by the legislation of many countries that has become supportive of gay and lesbian marriages, primarily in Europe, Canada and South Africa. The US legislation is still less friendly to SSM although some states legalized SSM. Another crucial issue is the adoption of children by gay or lesbian couples or even having children using innovative reproduction biotechnologies. This legal issue is much more challenging than the legalization of SSM itself and involves certain complex aspects related to the rights of both parents and their children.
Religious stances on homosexual relations and partnerships have been explicitly negative for centuries; however, at present, even this sphere demonstrates a new understanding of the problem expressed by some denominations, primarily of the Protestant origin. The Catholic Church remains staunch in its condemnation of SSM and their possible legalization while the US Presbyterian and Church and Metropolitan Community Church conceptualize a different interpretation of homosexuality as being in line with the true spirit of the Bible. The attitude of people representing the sphere of contemporary politics has also changed dramatically, as some Republicans, members of the party that has been known for its radically negative attitude towards SSM legalization, choose to have a different stand. They see the party’s conservative position as outdated and detrimental to its progress and success in the future. The resolution of the problem might have been adopting the Constitutional Amendment but this does not seem to be a realistic step for now.
Recent developments and steps related to SSM legalization are a convincing proof of a more tolerant and accepting attitude to the problem on the part of society at large, no matter how complex and controversial the issue might be. This trend is a reflection of a new vision of freedom maintaining that all people should be granted equal rights. It is also the evidence of the fact that human civilization’s progress in worldview concepts and their implementation is manifested in many ways and cannot be stalled.