The Corner

Who Is Driving the Campaign for Gay Marriage? A View from Across the Pond

Most homosexuals indifferent to David Cameron’s drive for gay marriage: Only a quarter would wed if law changes” is a headline in the Daily Mail today. 

According to a poll commissioned by Catholic Voices, 39 percent of self-identified gay people in Britian consider redefining marriage to include them a priority, 27 percent would avail themselves of it, and, at the same time, 61 percent believe that “true equality” in marriage requires the ability to marry in places of worship.

That last point is particularly interesting in light of debates we’re having here about religuous liberty.

The poll, described as the “first ever professionally-conducted poll of gay people’s attitudes to same-sex marriage” comes as Prime Minister David Cameron has renewed his vow to redefine marriage there.

Austen Ivereigh, co-founder of Catholic Voices and author of the new book, How to Defend the Faith Without Raising Your Voice: Civil Responses to Catholic Hot Button Issues, took some questions from across the pond on the poll’s reasoning and findings. (Full disclosure: I’ve been involved in the development of Catholic Voices USA, based on the British model.)


Kathryn Jean Lopez: Who are you to say what gay people want?

Ivereigh: I think only gay people can say what they want — which is why we carried out this survey. And it turns out that — as most of us who have discussed same-sex marriage with gay people already knew anecdotally — a “gay view” of same-sex marriage simply does not exist. Gay people are as divided as the rest of society on the issue. That doesn’t mean their views are indistinguishable from the rest of the population; more gay people (77 percent) than among the wider population disagree that marriage should be between a man and a woman. But what you find is that they don’t feel strongly about pushing that idea politically. Fewer than half, for example, agree with gay-rights lobby Stonewall’s main argument for same-sex marriage, which is that a distinction between civil partnerships and marriage perpetuates discrimination. In fact only half of lesbian, gay, and bisexual people think it’s important to extend marriage to same-sex couples. Gay people are far less militant and united about this than gay-marriage advocates like to suggest. If this is really a civil-rights issue, we’re a long way from 1968.#more#

Lopez: Why should we trust this study, coming from a group that is against same-sex marriage?

Ivereigh: The survey was carried out by ComRes, an independent pollster whose independence and integrity are beyond dispute. The BBC and many of Britain’s big firms are among its clients. The questions (mostly in the form of statements) were carefully balanced and ordered so as not to elicit particular answers. We asked for and paid for the poll, but it was ComRes who set the questions based on what we wanted to find out — which was how gay people felt about marriage and civil partnerships, and what they thought of some of the arguments of each side. So the study can be absolutely trusted. ComRes began by finding self-identified gay, lesbian, or bisexual people out of more than 10,000 who did the survey — so this was a very substantial sampling. If anything, it is weighted against us. About 5 percent self-identified as gay, lesbian, or bisexual; whereas detailed government household surveys put the proportion of LGB people at less than 2 percent. I think the discrepancy can be explained by the fact that it was an online poll. Computer users — being young and urban — have a higher proportion of gay people among them. So if there’s a distortion in the findings, I’d say it was that it overestimates the numbers of gay people.

Lopez: What findings do you consider most revealing?

Ivereigh: I think the most revealing finding is the one that points up the relative indifference gay people feel towards the government’s proposal, and their skepticism about the prime minister, David Cameron’s, motives. But perhaps the most significant finding is that for those who do believe in gay marriage, true marriage equality means being able to marry in a place of worship: More than 60 percent believe that, although this drops to 30 percent if you ask gay people if places of worship should be compelled to marry same-sex couples.

I think this is significant because the government’s whole rhetoric on this issue — in fact, their only argued value — is that this is about equality, but they then say that no church will be made to act against their beliefs. But what gay people are saying is, “We don’t care much about this — but if you want to do it, you should go all the way.” That 30 percent who would like to coerce the institutions of civil society are the ones who will surely take advantage of any same-sex marriage law to bring vexatious lawsuits to combat “hateful attitudes.” Since Canada introduced same-sex marriage five years ago, as Michael Coren reported in your magazine, there have been more than 200 procedures against people who believe that marriage is between a man and a woman. Our poll shows that’s likely to happen in the U.K. too.

But for me, the most interesting findings were those about gay attitudes to marriage generally. It’s interesting, for example, that over 70 percent support marriage as an institution, but their view of marriage is very different from the wider population. In a previous poll we commissioned, ComRes found 84 percent of British people agreed that “the best environment for children is to be raised by their own mother and father”; but in this poll, gay people are much less certain — in fact they’re split: 38 percent agree, 38 percent disagree. What does that suggest about many gay peoples’ experience? Maybe there’s a discussion to be opened up there.

Lopez: How would you hope the findings might constructively inform the current debate in England?

IVEREIGH: We’ve been really bothered by how, in the U.K. as elsewhere, this issue is stuck in a noxious frame in which “religion” is pitted against “equality” and “gay rights” — as if we Catholics don’t believe in equality, as if the Church doesn’t defend the dignity of all people, as if gay people can’t be Christian! These dichotomies are painful and grotesquely misleading, but of course convenient to SSM advocates, who are absolved from making a common-good case for gay marriage. Hard evidence is helpful in breaking this logjam. In our first poll, we found 70 percent of the predominantly non-churchgoing British people agreed with the churches that the current definition of marriage in law should be retained; in other words, this wasn’t a case of a sectarian morality being imposed by a minority, but one in which the Churches are speaking for the silent majority. In this poll, we’ve shown that gay people are out of step with the arguments of the SSM advocates, and have mixed feelings about the issue; so we can now, hopefully, get away from the idea that this is a “gay rights” issue or a question of discrimination. My hope — but I’m not optimistic — is that we can therefore now have the debate we should have had all along, about whether this really is a good thing for society; whether there is a compelling public case for a radical redefinition of a timeless civil-society institution; whether the state has a mandate for this; and so on. That’s where the arguments need to be.

Lopez: Why are attitudes about David Cameron’s motives important?

IVEREIGH: On one level, they’re not. A politician’s motives for backing or opposing a policy don’t change the rightness or wrongness of that policy. But the survey shows that politically, Cameron hasn’t got a lot to gain from this move — at least, not from gay people. They don’t think he is delivering what most of them regard as equality, and they don’t think he’s doing what he’s doing because he believes in it. And other polls show that the skepticism of gay people reflects that of the wider population. Cameron wants to be seen as a pioneer of minority-group emancipation in order to “detoxify” the Conservative brand. People see that’s what he is trying to do, and so don’t give him credit for it. And on the debit side, he has a lot of very angry MPs whose postbags are full of letters from indignant voters asking, “Where did this idea come from? Where’s the mandate? Who is asking for it? Why wasn’t it in any of the party manifestos?” The petition being run by the Coalition for Marriage has attracted more than 540,000 signatures. People are very upset. Hopefully our poll will cause the government to ask, “What’s it all for?” Gay people don’t seem to feel very strongly in favor, after all. And the numbers involved are tiny. We’ve worked out, on the basis of these findings, that the government is planning a radical dismantling of marriage for the sake of a mere 0.4 percent of the population. Now I’m not a utilitarian, and majorities shouldn’t dictate morality. But it’s sobering to realize how tiny the numbers are. We have to keep asking: Where is the mandate for this? Where’s the public good?

Lopez: What should Americans take from your study?

Ivereigh: For both Europe and the U.S. — and increasingly in Latin America and elsewhere — gay marriage has fast become one of those defining, where-do-you-stand questions that helps determine which tribe we belong to. We have to de-tribalize this. We have to encourage gay people — and there are many — to stand up and say, “I don’t feel diminished or disrespected by acknowledging marriage as a heterosexual institution, and I don’t have a problem with it being promoted and protected by the state because of its massive benefits to children and to society.” And I think religious people have to stand up and say, “You know, this parody of us as homophobes and theocrats — it just doesn’t wash. We love gay people. They’re in our pews and read at Mass and serve society. Don’t try to make out that we’re against them.” If our study helps you guys do that, we’ll be happy. You’ve been debating this longer and harder than we have.

Lopez: How can we have a more constructive and Christian conversation about marriage on both sides of the Atlantic, and how does this poll help toward that goal?

IVEREIGH: Jonathan Haidt in The Righteous Mind shows how narrow is the ethic of autonomy behind the push for same-sex marriage. It’s a moral matrix hostile to community, institutions, families, and tradition; it sees these as constraining the pursuit of happiness and fulfillment. I think a Christian conversation about this issue has to start by asking what is good in marriage as it has evolved over time, and what needs to be protected and promoted by the state. The answer pretty soon moves to children. Marriage is uniquely apt for the rearing and raising of children, whose interests are best advanced by growing up in a stable environment with their biological parents. That’s why the state singles out this, and no other, arrangement, and calls it “marriage,” which has an iconic, if not transcendent status. It’s not because the state sponsors loving, committed relationships — why should it? Why one set of relationships, and not others? It’s because of this link with children. Take that away, and the state no longer signals what’s best for children; it becomes agnostic on a question which, in fact, most people have a clear answer to. As Christians, we need to care about citizenship, belonging, and the welfare of the vulnerable. That’s why we need to speak up. And we need to remember — and our poll suggests as much — that gay people are just as likely, if not more likely, to share those values and share our passion for defending marriage. So let’s build a broad civic alliance, of believers and non-believers, gay and straight, to resist this most autocratic, unpopular, and unjustified of political acts.

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