It happened so fast that if you were not paying attention you could have missed it. But we’ve lived through a revolution –a bloodless, victimless one. Not so long ago it seemed a crazy idea or a very distant dream. Today it is a reality in much of the world and it seems irreversible. It happened fast, but it is the result of an effort carried out by many people over a long period time, and it helped correct an old injustice.
This summer the law recognizing gay marriage in Spain turns ten (Pedro Zerolo, an activist and politician who was one of the staunchest supporters of the norm, died shortly before the anniversary). A few days ago, the Supreme Court of Mexico endorsed same-sex marriage. And this spring that Ireland became the first country to approve gay marriage with a referendum.
The change shows two virtues in areas where it has often been easy to find faults. Firstly, Spain, which for historical reasons one might not automatically associate with tolerance and moral permissiveness (and the same goes for Mexico or Ireland, which has restrictive and often tragic laws on abortion), has been a pioneer country in recognizing the rights of homosexuals. A few decades ago Spain had a uniform society, dominated by the Catholic Church. Now, according to the Pew Research Center, it is the most gay-friendly country in the world. Secondly, former prime minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, who promoted a demagogic, naïve and often self-defeating enthusiasm in office, and who wouldn’t or couldn’t stop the housing bubble on time, but who bravely pushed forward important measures, such as the abortion law, the attempt to create independent public broadcasting or the legalization of gay marriage. When someone argues that legalization (and the possibility that couples formed by members of the same sex can adopt children) is an empty or meaningless gesture, their protest, and what it conceals, shows that it is not.
In Spain and elsewhere the law met opposition from conservative sectors, which included some representatives of the Popular Party, and the outraged refusal of the Catholic Church. The PP voted against the measure and appealed to the Constitutional Court (this appeal was rejected in 2012). However, when they won the general election in 2011, the Popular Party didn’t want to change the law, as they tried to do with the abortion law. Before the Constitutional Court ruling and despite the party line, some of its members had officiated at gay weddings; some had got married to a partner of the same sex. The fact that the party has changed its stance is also good news.
For a long time, left or left of center governments did not support gay marriage. Bill Clinton signed the Defense of Marriage Act, which allowed states not to recognize gay marriages performed in other parts of the country, and Barack Obama hesitated to support same-sex marriage till 2012. His administration decided to stop defending Doma in court, and in 2013 the Supreme Court held that its third section was unconstitutional. Clinton has also changed his view. In recent years, right-wing parties have defended gay marriage. British Prime Minister David Cameron said he was in favor of gay marriage “because I am conservative.” Same-sex marriage is now legal in the United Kingdom (except in Northern Ireland).
Time has weakened some objections. The etymological argument, which reivindicated the original meaning of the word “marriage”, overlooked the fact that the meaning of words changes in order to represent reality, and was somewhat weak, because resorting to an etymological argument -a form of linguistic legitimism- tends to reveal that you’ve already lost. Gay marriage did not cause the dissolution of the family, but its reinforcement: what we see is that there are more types of families. One of the keys to the success of the supporters of gay marriage is that their claim has been raised not as a minority issue but as an equality issue. Homosexuals simply ask to have the same rights as their fellow citizens. Those who oppose gay marriage have to argue that some citizens must have fewer rights than others because their sexual orientation is different.
The legalization of same-sex marriage is a symptom of a bigger tolerance towards homosexuality in much of the world. People who previously had to hide their sexual and emotional life can now experience it freely. Expressions and sensibilities that were once confined to a ghetto have become part of a common heritage. But in many countries homosexuality is punishable by law or socially penalized. In some of them homophobia is not a disease in remission but a state policy. Sectors of the US evangelical right, aware that they have lost the battle at home, fund anti-gay campaigns in Africa. The persecution not only occurs in dictatorships; but also in pseudo-democracies. In recent years countries like Russia (where 74% of the population disapprove of homosexuality) have passed homophobic laws. In Mauritania, Sudan and parts of Nigeria and Somalia, homosexual acts between men are punishable by death, as in Iran, Saudi Arabia, Brunei, United Arab Emirates and Yemen. Practicing homosexual acts can lead to life imprisonment in Bangladesh, the Maldives, Myanmar, Pakistan, Qatar, Sierra Leone, Tanzania and Uganda. In some parts of the world homosexuals suffer beatings, mutilation and rapes.
With intelligence and firmness, and without excessive arrogance, Western democracies should support gay rights groups in countries where they are persecuted. Gay visibility -in some areas: not in all domains of society yet- has helped to increase tolerance in the West, and may do so on a global scale. The story of moral progress is the story of how empathy grew: how it spread to those who at the beginning seemed to be very different from us. As in other instances of the fight against prejudice, familiarization -through the media, art and everyday experience- is a critical factor.
Although sometimes self-appointed defenders of liberty have been slow to notice it, sexual freedom is an essential one, and the victory of gay marriage is a triumph of liberal principles. The journalist Jonathan Rauch, author of a breakthrough editorial in The Economist in 1996, defended gay marriage by appealing to the ideals upheld by those who signed the Declaration of American Independence: “All men are created equal. Though they could not have imagined same-sex marriage, its advent is a tribute to the revolutionary incrementalism of their liberal idea.”