The People Have Spoken: Faroese People Want Equal Rights for Gays
This fall the Faroese Parliament faces a historic question: Should same-sex marriage be permitted and treated as equal under the law? Internationally, it is clear that the tide of public opinion is turning in favor of marriage equality. But, in order to understand if a change in policy is appropriate for the Faroe Islands, a couple of important questions much be addressed: 1) What is the will of the Faroese people? 2) What impacts might the legalization of same-sex marriage have on Faroese society?
As a social scientist specializing in cross-cultural psychology, last summer I came to the Faroe Islands with the intention of exploring these questions. Based on media coverage, it appeared that people were closely divided on the topic of LGBT rights. But, because people with minority viewpoints are often overrepresented in the media, I was convinced that it was important to directly survey the Faroese people about their opinions on this matter.
To fulfill this goal, I created a questionnaire that I gave to hundreds of Faroese people, both online and in-person, including people from a diverse range of villages. Of particular importance is that, of the participants who expressed an opinion, the majority were in favor of the legalization of same-sex marriage in the Faroe Islands. (This finding was more recently replicated by the Faroese Gallup Poll – thereby confirming the reliability of my survey.) Additionally, most of the respondents in my survey did not believe that same-sex marriage is damaging to society. Finally, the majority of the participants disagreed with the idea that homosexuality is impure, ungodly, or against nature. In light of the fact that some religious leaders have expressed concern over the morality of homosexuality, it is important to recognize that, however vocal these leaders are, they do not accurately represent the majority of Faroese opinions.
It is clear that the Faroese people, as a whole, support the legalization of same-sex marriage. However, some might argue that legislators have a greater obligation than simply representing the will of their constituents. They must also make decisions for the public good. With that in mind, we must explore the impact same-sex marriage has had on the societies where it is legalized.
Many purport that same-sex marriage and civil unions in Western Europe have contributed to decreasing heterosexual marriage rates, increasing divorce rates, and an increase in the number of children born out of wedlock in those societies. However, in a meticulous analysis, economist M.V. Lee Badgett has clearly shown that all of these trends were well established long before nations such as Denmark and the Netherlands legalized same-sex unions.
My own research dovetails with that of Badgett. The Faroe Islands have experienced the same marital trends, such as decreasing marriage rates and high divorce rates, observed in other Scandinavian societies. In fact, in recent years as many as 50 percent of Faroese children have been born to unwed parents. This strongly suggests that some other variable is driving the trends that concern those opposed to same-sex marriage.
Let us return now to the opinions of the Faroese people. I have demonstrated that the majority of Faroese people are in favor of same-sex marriage, but that does not mean we should dismiss the opinions of the minority. However, I would argue that many of those who are opposed to same-sex marriage today will change their minds within the next few years. Social scientists have consistently shown that when people are exposed to diversity, they tend to become less fearful of and biased against other groups. In short, if you want to eliminate discrimination, give people a chance to get to know each other. Interestingly, the Faroese people who were opposed to marriage equality in my study also tended to say that they felt uncomfortable around LGBT individuals. This suggests that their objection to LGBT civil rights may simply be due a lack of experience with those who will be affected by these laws. It is possible that, with the growing acceptance of LGBT individuals in the Faroe Islands, fewer people will feel that they have to hide their sexual orientation. As a result, people who are uncomfortable with the idea of homosexuality today will soon recognize that many of the people they care about – their friends, colleagues, and family members – belong to this oppressed group. And thus, even for those who are currently opposed to same-sex unions, we should expect their attitudes to shift as their exposure to diversity grows.
With these facts in mind, I encourage the Faroese people to strongly voice their support for the legalization of same-sex marriage in the Faroe Islands. This legislation represents the will of the Faroese people – of today and tomorrow.
Dr. Mariah G Schug is a Visiting Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychology at WesleyanUniversity in Connecticut, USA. She specializes in cross-cultural psychology including the study of prejudice and intergroup attitudes.