The Many Routes to Marriage: In China, Unofficially.

In the West, when we speak of “marriage”, we are usually thinking of something sanctioned by either church or state – or both. In Asia, it’s more fluid. Last year I reported on the first gay marriage in Nepal, which was held without waiting for the new constitution to be completed and give legal sanction to the union. Similar unofficial weddings, unrecognized by legal provision, seem to be increasingly common in many Asian countries. What I like about this report from China is not the novelty value of the report (this not new. There was a very public “gay marriage” display in Beijing for Valentine’s Day, 2009), but the argument that public recognition of such marriages, even without religious blessing or legal registration, can contribute to stable and healthy relationships – and so contribute to HIV/AIDS prevention.

When Da Wen said “I do” to Xiao Qiang at their wedding in a Beijing restaurant on Saturday it was a union aimed not only at the joining of two people in love but also a bid to strengthen the fight against AIDS.

The two men, knowing that gay marriage is not recognized under Chinese law, still wanted to declare their union in public as an example to other gay couples in China.

Although their marriage cannot be officially registered, the couple received a certificate, complete with pictures of both men and the seal of “China’s Happy Marriage Committee,” an organization that doesn’t exist.

Xiao Dong, director of a Beijing AIDS prevention voluntary team, said such gay marriages would help people in the gay community prevent AIDS.

He said marriage could seal relationships and avoid rapid changes in sex partners.

Xiao said the lack of a law to regulate same-sex marriages in China made it difficult for gay couples to maintain their relationships.

People in gay communities would often have several sex partners due to the absence of law, thus dramatically increasing the risk of them getting AIDS, Xiao said.


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Pope Benedict’s Strong Argument for Gay Marriage, Queer Families.

Last Sunday, I picked up a little book at the Soho Masses bookstall called “Christians and Sexuality in the Time of AIDS“, a useful little book, which I bought at a ridiculously low bargain price. Some of the insights have little to do directly with the main theme, and it is one of these that is relevant here, an observation made by James Alison in his introduction, writing about Pope Benedict XVI and the nature of his theology.  James has frequently observed that when we respond too quickly or too superficially to the pope’s reported remarks, we often underestimate his thinking, which is substantially more nuanced than we usually recognize. In his position, he argues, Benedict cannot do other than repeat the well-worn, established magisterial positions on topical issues.

The really interesting questions surrounding what a pope is doing are never the politically immediate headline grabbers, but always the small, apparently insignificant tinkerings around the edges which are either going to make change possible over time, or try to block it.

When I read these words, they brought into focus for me the speech that Benedict  gave to a group of Italian politicians and public officials last Friday, which has been widely interpreted as an attack on gay marriage. This is not the way I interpreted the speech: instead, I wrote (in the post below) that the reference to “marriage between a man and a woman”, and to the forces undermining it, were curiously minor. The main thrust of the speech was more usefully seen as in praise of strong families – which could equally well apply to the families of same sex parents as to any other.   After reading James Alison, I thought how perfectly his warning applies to the present case: well, of course he made the obligatory noises about marriage between a man and a woman (how could he not?) – but the headline writers have missed the main points. With just a little “apparently insignificant tinkerings around the edges”, this attack on gay marriage can instead be read as a statement in praise of all families – including those which are queer.

I submit my original post below, just as I wrote it Sunday — with profound apologies to my colleague Bart, who very generously responded to my request for preliminary comment with some very useful and helpful suggestions, which I have duly ignored. This is not in any way a reflection on his contribution – but just on my acute lack of time this week.  (I am writing this close to midnight, as it is). I will revise and refine this text later, to incorporate the additional links, Bart’s contribution – and possibly later thought as well (both my own and that of readers’ comments).

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The Many Routes to Marriage

In the many high profile struggles around “legalising” same sex marriage, we too often forget that legalization is not what is required: with just a very few possible exceptions, marriage is already legal for all couples, everywhere – and the exceptions I am thinking of are the handful of countries where all homosexual acts are prohibited. (Even in these, it is possible that marriage itself is not explicitly prohibited. I don’t know.)

All that is needed to conduct a fully legal wedding is a consenting couple, a willing celebrant, and a congregation (or at least some witnesses) to share the day. Any such wedding will be fully legal – but may lack legal recognition. The struggle is not over achieving “legal” marriage, but about equal recognition  for all legal marriages – and securing the co-operation of the churches, in supplying willing celebrants.

I was reminded of this by two unrelated items this week: on Sunday evening after Mass, the some of us from Soho Masses congregation watched the excellent documentary “Queer and Catholic” which was made for Channel 4 TV nearly 10 years ago. I will have more on this later (after  a chance to see it again), but the bit relevant for now comes near the end, which features the wedding of a gay Catholic couple, Joe Murray and his partner Eric.  This was in every sense a genuine, legal and sacramental wedding. However, it lacked legal recognition, and without the co-operation of the Catholic Church they had to have their wedding in an MCC church.

The second reminder came in a report of an important anniversary, in Canada. This describes the tenth wedding anniversary of what is described as the world’s first gay wedding. It wasn’t, for the reasons outlined above – but it was indeed the first wedding of two men to achieve, retrospectively, formal and full legal recognition.

Please join me in saying, to   and to all the other same sex couples whose marriages are now achieving equal recognition by the law:  “Happy Anniversary”!

Happy anniversary: celebrating 10 years of gay marriage in Canada with Jack Layton and Peter Tabuns

Last Friday was the 10th anniversary of the first legal gay marriages in the world, and the two married couples responsible for that celebrated by renewing their vows in the same church where they started a decade ago: the Metropolitan Community Church of Toronto on Simpson Street. The event, unsurprisingly, had a dash of the explicitly political, but was mostly a publicly personal evening for Kevin Bourassa and Joe Varnell, and Anne andElaine Vautour.

A bit of background: while the feds only legalized same-sex marriage in 2005, the MCC conducted Canada’s first legal gay and lesbian weddings on January 14, 2001, by using the alternative, very old Christian tradition of publishing banns. The province of Ontario, then run by Mike Harris, fought the certification of the marriages in court, and lost that fight in the Ontario Superior Court; Ottawa lost again on appeal in 2003. (Ottawa eventually decided not to push the fight any further.)  On Friday, the MCC celebrated the 10th anniversary of the first two weddings it performed, which, it argued—correctly, as it turned out—were legal whether the government realized it or not.

The Rev. Brent Hawkes started the evening by reminiscing about how exciting and terrifying the day was 10 years ago. It’s bizarre now to remember that this issue ignited such anger in people that a man of the cloth received death and bomb threats—but he did. Hawkes joked about the controversy and the measures he had to take: “That morning, I met my bodyguards: 12 of the meanest lesbians you’ve ever seen.”

(Read more at Toronto Life)

Cathedral Wedding for Senior Lesbian Clerics

When Massachusetts introduced same sex marriage in 2003, it as alone among American states. Since then, a steady trickle of others have followed, either with meaningful civil unions or with full marriage equality. More will follow this year, and is increasingly obvious, as VP Biden has observed, that full marriage equality for gay and lesbian couples is now “inevitable” across the country. It is now only a matter of time.  Although the opponents of same-sex marriage claim theirs is a principled stand based in religion, it is also becoming obvious that religious opposition too is crumbling. As with so much else that was previously prohibited on the pretext of religious belief, the religious objections to homoerotic relationships will in time be recognised as without religious validity for the modern world.

One recent Boston wedding was just one more among many – but it carries with it strong symbolic importance, and is an important signpost to a future without religious discrimination. Two lesbian Episcopalian clerics, each holding an office of some seniority and importance in their diocese, were married in the Cathedral Church of St Paul in Boston, in a wedding service solemnized by the Episcopalian bishop of Massachusetts, the Right Reverend M Thomas Shaw SSJE.  What could be more respectable than that?

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Gay Marriage – in Church: Sweden

It’s been a long time coming, but has been expected ever since same – sex marriage was approved by the Swedish parliament back in May this year – immediately before the news from Iowa.  As I predicted at the time, the Swedish Lutheran Church has now approved church weddings for gay and lesbian couples.   The interesting part of this to me is that although individual pastors are not obliged to perform same sex ceremonies, local churches do not have the same opt-out:  all churches must be available to all couples.  If the resident pastor won’t do it, a substitute must be brought in from elsewhere.

Bridegrooms on Church Steps

Once again, this advance has come after discussion that began much earlier, before the church approved “blessing of homosexual partnerships years ago.”  In so doing, the majority of the church discounted the traditional view that such partnerships were somehow “against Scripture”.  This is another very welcome step in the defanging of that fallacious argument. (See “Countering the Clobber Texts”)

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Oz Priest, on the Christian Case for Gay Marriage

“Fr Dave” is yet another Australian arguing strongly in favour of legal recognition. His argument is that it the Christian thing to do: same sex marriage, like any other, contributes broadly to social stability, and provides a stable environment for raising children. (For those who dispute this on the grounds that children need a mother and a father, see the observation by cartoonist David Horsey, at Seattle PI:

Today, a couple of inebriated knuckleheads who happen to be boy and girl can impulsively get hitched any day of the week at a chapel in Las Vegas. A straight man or woman who has repeatedly failed at marriage can try, try again. The moral fiber of America will only be enhanced when two men or two women who have faithfully shared their lives for decades are finally allowed to do the same.

But back to Fr Dave, in Australia:

Why every Christian should be in favour of gay marriage.

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Illinois Civil Unions – Welcomed by Some Religious Leaders

As expected, the Illinois legislation approving civil unions for same sex couples easily passed in the State Senate. The bill now goes to the governor, who has promised to sign. This should take effect from June 1.

What impressed me in the reaction, is that in marked contrast to the familiar claims that this would somehow hurt traditional marriage and harm religion, some religious leaders specifically welcomed it.

Some religious leaders welcomed the legislation. In Chicago, Rabbi Larry Edwards said he’s looking forward to planning celebrations for couples in his Jewish congregation who may decide to form civil unions under Illinois law.

“To those who say it’s a slippery slope and eventually will lead to marriage, I say, ‘I hope so,'” said Edwards of Or Chadash synagogue. “I would like to be on a slippery slope that slides in the direction of justice.”

The Rev. Vernice Thorn, associate pastor of Broadway United Methodist Church in Chicago said she considers the vote a hopeful sign. “Same-sex legalized marriage is going to happen. It’s just a matter of when.”

-Washington Post

Precisely – not if, but when.

The usual Catholic spokesmen were less enthusiastic.

The prize for the most outlandish commentary must surely go to the Illinois Family Institute, who complained that the supporters of the bill had failed to examine the issues clearly, and had engaged in emotional, sentimental arguments instead.

The Illinois Family Institute said legislators failed to examine the legislation clearly.

“Proponents engaged in embarrassing and maudlin displays of sentimentality intended to emotionally manipulate rather than intellectually persuade their colleagues,” said executive director David E. Smith.

Really? I did not follow the Illinois arguments (on either side), but the opponents of marriage or family equality are the ones who have consistently failed in court to back up their claims with any evidence whatever – as in the California Prop 8 trial, and in adoption cases in both Florida and Arkansas. It’s unlikely that the Illinois opponents found any more persuasive rational arguments against civil unions: there aren’t any. Their case is based on the completely false idea that extending civil the civil benefits of marriage will somehow harm religion and its value for full marriage – and  selective morality.

Sen. Rickey Hendon, D-Chicago, accused some opponents of hypocrisy.

“I hear adulterers and womanizers and folks cheating on their wives and down-low brothers saying they’re going to vote against this bill. It turns my stomach,” Hendon said. “We know what you do at night, and you know too.”

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Illinois Joins the “Arc of History”: House Approves Civil Unions.

The Catholic Church and NOM in Illinois have failed in their attempt to derail the state’s move towards marriage equality. Yesterday, the House narrowly approved legislation that should see civil unions introduced for same sex couples from early next year. The measure must still pass in the Senate, but early expectations were that passage in the Senate would be easier than in the House. Governor   has already stated that he will sign any civil unions bill that is passed by the legislature. Expect final approval soon.

Sponsoring legislator described yesterday as historic, saying that Illinois had joined the arc of history. He is right.This is hugely symbolic, as the strong opposition from the institutional Catholic Church shows:

Bob Gilligan, executive director of the Catholic Conference of Illinois, said the civil unions bill equates to same-sex marriage.

He is wrong of course. This bill is not full marriage, and in any case affects only state level matters, for as long as DOMA remains valid. But is an indicator of things to come. During the past year, the major advances in marriage and family equality have come outside the US, in Europe, South America and Asia. This important breakthrough in Illinois, coming at the end of the month that saw disappointing mid-term election results, is a welcome reminder that even in a difficult political climate, equality continues to advance inexorably, at federal level, at state level, at local level, and even in the Churches, in the US and in the rest of the world. The arc of history is indeed n the side of equality and inclusion.

Now for Australia – watch this space.

From Chicago Tribune:

‘Historic’ civil unions measure passes Illinois House

SPRINGFIELD — Civil unions would be allowed in Illinois beginning next year for same-sex couples under legislation the House passed today.

The 61-52 vote followed spirited debate on whether the action would be tantamount to legalizing gay marriage.

Sponsoring Rep. Greg Harris, D-Chicago, called on his colleagues to join the arc of history that has gradually eliminated discrimination on social issues ranging from allowing women the right to vote to knocking down numerous social and legal barriers standing in the way of giving rights to people of color.“We have a chance today to make Illinois a more fair state, a more just state, and a state which treats all of its citizens equally under the law,” Harris said. “We have a chance here, as leaders have had in previous generations, to correct injustice and to move us down the path toward liberty.”The measure now goes to the Senate, where a similar bill passed in committee today.

Rick Garcia, political director of the gay rights organization Equality Illinois, hailed the bill’s passage as historic.

“I think it was telling that as the bill was being discussed the governor came out onto the floor and got a standing ovation,” Garcia said. “We’ve taken a huge step toward fairness. We are thrilled.”

Europe-wide Marriage Equality Coming Closer

Marriage equality, Europe-wide, just came an important step closer: the EU parliament this morning passed a resolution which will require all member states to recognise marriages or civil unions contracted in any other. At present, seven EU countries provide for full marriage for same-sex couples, many others have civil unions which are nearly equivalent in legal force. The major exceptions are Italy, Greece and some of the former Communist countries in the East and the Baltic states.

This new requirement does not (yet) require recognition of same sex unions in all states, but it does improve the prospects. This is just the latest in a series of moves that are standardising approaches to human rights across the Union – including protection from discrimination. The need to recognize foreign marriages will also increase still further the pressure on countries like Italy, Greece and Poland which are still resisting. All EU residents have an automatic right of residence in every other EU country. The new regulation will give foreign gay nationals with marriage or civil union certificates recognition for their unions, and any legal benefits that apply to any other married couples. Their own citizens will not enjoy the same benefits: their governments will be discriminating against them, in favour of foreigners!


Gay marriage, civil unions in Europe, November 2010 (for explanation, see below)

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Oz Marriage Equality Draws Ever Nearer.

The prospects for the introduction of same sex marriage for Australians have been transformed in just a few weeks. Although Prime Minister Julia Gillard remains intransigent in her opposition, I wonder how much longer she will be able to hold out.

Last Thursday, Parliament held what was widely (but inaccurately) described as a “gay marriage” vote – and marriage won. This was not, mind, a vote to introduce, marriage equality, but just an advisory vote that MP’s should consult their constituents on the matter. When they do, they will find that by a strong majority, Australians favour introducing legal recognition of same sex marriages. (This should be no big deal. Australian law already provides for the de facto equal treatment of all couples, and thus for informal recognition. All that is required is a mechanism to confirm that such a relationship exists).

The latest opinion poll, just like earlier ones, shows once again just how strong is this support:

Most Australians support gay marriage, the latest Nielsen poll shows.

On same-sex marriage, 23 per cent of those polled said they strongly support legalising it, while 33 per cent said they support it.

This compares with 16 per cent who said they were opposed, 21 per cent who said they were strongly opposed, 5 per cent who said they neither supported or opposed it and one per cent who did not know.

-Sydney Morning Herald

Ms Gillard has steadfastly insisted that only a party conference can change the existing party policy against marriage equality. Already the party rebels who are promoting a change in policy have engineered an early conference, which may ensure just that. All politicians like to win votes, and many in her party believe this was one of the issues that led to the party losing votes to the Greens in the last federal election.

Even if the conference does not vote to change policy, or if the opposition coalition can further delay what is rapidly becoming the inevitable, formal recognition for same sex couples will still come for many Australians, by the back door: several states have declared their intentions to introduce either full marriage equality, or near-marriage civil unions, at state level.