As a longtime activist for LGBT rights, I was invited by the Portuguese Socialist Party to join their ticket as an independent in the 2009 elections in order to further the cause of equal civil marriage, also known as “same-sex marriage”. The Socialist Party won, I became a member of Parliament, and in 2010 same-sex marriage became a reality in Portugal – following the recognition of same-sex civil unions in 2001.
It was not an easy victory. It took a tremendous amount of debating, argument building, convincing and struggling. Most of all, however, it took a lot of conviction. In 2009 I had published a book on the issue called “A Chave do Armário” (The key to the closet). The title meant that political and societal recognition of same-sex unions as equal to different-sex unions is the key issue in admitting gay and lesbian people to full citizenship – since the source of their discrimination lies precisely in the silence and invisibility to which their emotions, sexuality, and relationships are condemned.
A protected class
Throughout the Portuguese debate, we were successful in transmitting a message that had two main elements: equality and happiness. By equality we meant that it had become unacceptable to have a whole group of citizens excluded from a basic right because of their sexual orientation, in precisely the same way that it was inconceivable to discriminate on the grounds of “race” or gender. And by happiness we meant that same-sex marriage did not affect heterosexual marriage, did not in any way interfere with other people’s capacity to choose and pursue their life choices – it simply gave the same possibility to more people.
Equality of rights and the notion of more chances of happiness for more people without taking them away from others – those were arguments that were easily understood by most citizens, as they are the basis of an ethics that has clearly replaced attitudes based on either religious fundamentalist or essentialist perspectives on what is or should be “natural” in sexuality.
Gays and lesbians should be considered, for all intents and purposes, a protected class – like women or “racial” minorities – meaning a group that has been historically discriminated against on the grounds of a characteristic of their members’ identity. Abolishing the definition of homosexuality as a disease and decriminalizing homosexual acts was, of course, a first and important step in many countries. Recognizing the validity of same-sex unions – de facto unions or civil unions, for instance – was another important step in many countries. But only the recognition of equal marriage allows for full equality, since that contract or institution is still only available to some – albeit the majority of – citizens. The right to marry should be extended not only because of the bundle of rights to which it grants access (which civil unions can do too), but because of the symbolic importance of an equal recognition of dignity.
In many – mostly Western – societies, the struggle for equality for gays and lesbians has also become a symbol of the completion of the modern project of democratic equality. That is precisely why in some societies, where conservative projects use the rhetoric of a pernicious Western influence as a populist argument to legitimize authoritarian regimes, gay and lesbian rights have also become a symbol – albeit a negative one. It should suffice to look at two dramatic and shocking examples of this – Uganda and Russia. In a way, this is history repeating itself: think about the importance of the abolition of slavery as a divider between countries or between regions in the 19th century. Or the similar importance of women’s right to vote (or, later, the legalization of abortion).
Lessons from the past
Equal rights, equal dignity, and recognition – that is, ending the silence and the invisibility that characterize discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation – are increasingly seen as a core element of a European political culture. Still, leaving the EU member states in charge of legislative issues related to civil law is creating strong divisions within Europe. Its main victims are the people who not only have no access to fundamental rights but are also the victims of homophobia that is accepted or promoted by the states themselves. This is unacceptable.
Human beings are born or develop along their lifetimes as heterosexual, bisexual or homosexual. Societies will be fairer and more productive the healthier and happier their members are. To increase the chances of more people living happier lives; to do so in the shortest possible time; and to do so while not taking any rights away from others – that is the essence of a humanist and progressive view of the commonwealth.
To use gays and lesbians as scapegoats of a supposed decay of the moral values of a specific nation or of Europe on the whole is just too hauntingly reminiscent of other such shameful processes in our past that we would rather forget. That, we should not forget.