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Human Rights Quarterly 23.1 (2001) 73-95

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Gay Rights and the Right to a Family: Conflicts Between Liberal and Illiberal Belief Systems

Rhoda E. Howard-Hassmann 1

I find it deeply ironic that because gays and lesbians want to share our values, they have been accused of destroying our values. 2

I. The Right to Form a Family

As the new century begins, it is useful to reflect on which social groups are still unprotected by the international human rights regime. An obvious candidate is gays and lesbians. 3 If "[e]veryone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this [Universal] Declaration [of Human Rights], without distinction of any kind, such as race, color, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other [End Page 73] status," 4 then it is incumbent upon activists and scholars interested in protecting the rights of gays and lesbians to show that they occupy a status analogous to that of other social groups who suffer discrimination. This is not an easy task. 5

Gays and lesbians are a more difficult social group to protect than other weak social groups such as women or children, because they are perceived in many cultures as innately dishonorable. Women and children who fill their prescribed social roles and perform their prescribed duties can be honored and respected (although they may still be denied human rights, especially if they step out of their roles). Gays, by asserting a deviant identity that defies social norms and common morality, are undeserving of honor and respect.

The debate is not about sexual practices, however repugnant many opponents (and many supporters) of gay rights might find such practices. The debate is about morality, and especially about the role of that fundamental social institution, the family. The epigram above illustrates the ambiguity of the position of gays and lesbians with regard to this social institution. Their very desire to join society by forming their own recognized family units is seen as an attack on the family.

"The family," states the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), "is the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the State." 6 The family is not specifically defined as a heterosexual relationship; rather, the UDHR states that "Men and women of full age . . . have the right to marry and found a family," without specifying that they must marry someone of the opposite sex. 7 But while this may be a useful legal point in arguing for the rights of gays and lesbians to marry, it is sociologically anachronistic to assume that the drafters and original signers of the UDHR did not have in mind a heterosexual family. 8

Liberals in the West and elsewhere might be willing to acknowledge that gays, as a social group suffering discrimination, should be permitted-- [End Page 74] even encouraged--to form their own distinctive and respected family units. But nonliberals regard the gay demand to form family units protected by society and the state as a threat to society's most fundamental social institution. 9 The family that the UDHR protects is, in their eyes (and in the eyes of the drafters of the UDHR probably was), a heterosexual family.

This article analyzes the conflict between liberal and nonliberal normative systems that underpins debate about gay rights and the right of gays to form a family. In so doing it refers to the normative beliefs and practices of actual existent cultures. To understand such beliefs and practices is not necessarily to condone them, any more than one would condone the underlying cultural values that in many societies, including the liberal West until recently, have buttressed sexism, anti-Semitism, and slavery. But if sensitivity to other cultures is a requirement in the debate over the universality of human rights, then even the most liberal advocates of gay and lesbian rights need to understand the beliefs of those who oppose them. 10

II. The Debate in Canada



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