We are living in a society in transition. The new values are beginning to overtake the old at a rapid rate, and not everyone is happy about it.
Perhaps this is no better illustrated than in the approach to gay people in this country. On the one hand we are about to be given something that I never thought we would see in my lifetime – gay marriage. On the other hand, we have a rising tide of violence and hate being directed at us by a section of the community that simply cannot come to terms with us.
As some gay people prepare to celebrate and enshrine in law their precious relationships, others are being beaten to death with such ferocity that even their own mothers can’t identify them.
We may be approaching equality in the law, but will we ever be free from the violence directed at us by the hate/booze/drug-fuelled Neanderthals?
Maybe not, but more generally things are going our way. The queues are forming at register offices up and down the country in anticipation of December 21. Touching stories are emerging in the local press, such as the one in the Oldham Advertiser which concerned Judith Tomlinson and Mary Harrison who, by serendipitous coincidence, discovered that their 31st anniversary as a couple will fall on 21 December. They will tie the knot on that significant date. Mary said: “We are happy. Neither of us wants to be without the other – we can’t function without each other.”
Judith added: “There has been nothing keeping us together all these years other than the fact that it’s what we want and I can’t see it changing. The only thing that will change will be legal rights the partnership gives us.”
But it is the celebrity weddings that the papers are rubbing their hands about. The parliamentary gays are in the forefront. According to The Sunday Times, South Ribble MP David Borrow says that he and his partner will be taking advantage of the new law “at some time in the future”, while Ben Bradshaw told The Evening Standard that he intends to do the deed with his boyfriend, Neal Dalgleish. Chris Smith and Dorian Jabri are “thinking about it”
Perhaps the granddaddy of all the gay nuptials will be that of Elton John and David Furnish. Although they haven’t officially announced their intentions yet, there is plenty of speculation that they will opt for a ceremony that’s as over-the-top as so many of their widely-reported parties are.
Kathryn Knight in the Daily Mail purported to have the inside track on Grandma Elton’s plans. She wrote: “The date has been reserved in the most A-list diaries. The venue for the nuptials has been lovingly prepared. Elizabeth Hurley and Victoria Beckham are to be bridesmaids, and while the exact specifications for the flowers and wedding cake have not been finalised, the happy couple have settled on a figurine of two Action Men decorated with Swarovski crystals for their table decorations. It will not, it is safe to say, be the most modest or conventional wedding. But then, ‘The Eltons’ are not known for their unassuming tastes.”
There is talk of negotiations with Hello magazine and that the guest list will include “the usual suspects” – Lulu, Sting and his wife Trudi, the Osbornes, Naomi Campbell, Sam Taylor-Wood and, of course, the Beckhams.
I don’t envy their task of having to buy presents for the man who has everything – three times over.
The inexorable spread of gay marriage is going to lead to all kinds of whacky situations because some people are bringing with them an awful lot of baggage – such as the detritus from a previous heterosexual marriage. In Belgium, for instance (where they didn’t mess about with this “civil partnership” lark and got straight on with proper marriage for gays), a divorced woman is to be a “best woman” at the gay wedding of her ex-husband. (Take a moment to work that out). Pink News reported that Tanya Van Rysselberghe will play a prominent role as her former hubby, Guy, gets married to her hairdresser Dany. Ms Van Rysselberghe explains that at first she was furious with Guy but she came to terms with the situation. “I would have been more ashamed if he had fallen in love with another woman. I saw how happy he and Dany were. They were like Yin and Yang. That’s why I want to be at his wedding as the best woman.”
Let’s hope Guy and Dany are not planning to go on a honeymoon to North Devon, where they might happen upon the Pine Lodge guest house, where – according to a report in the Independent on Sunday – landlady Mrs Davies doesn’t want gay couples as customers. In fact, she turned David Allard and Bryn Hughes away because she said their presence would “upset” her other guests. She, and others like her, are still allowed to get away with this sort of thing at the moment, but that may change if the government keeps to its promise to outlaw discrimination against gays and lesbians in the receipt of goods and services. Mrs Davies and her pursed lips might have come along at just the right time as a solid illustration of how unpleasant and mean-minded anti-gay prejudice can be.
But rock singer Melissa Etheridge found a way round it. She and her “domestic partner” (as gay spouses are called in California) Tammy Lynn had taken their two children on a trip in a trailer. According to a profile in The Sunday Telegraph magazine, the family arrived at a restaurant in Texas where a waitress refused to serve them. “At first, Etheridge says, you don’t want to believe it’s because you’re gay, but then you just let it go – and that’s unfortunate. Of course, the waitress who did wait on us – we gave her $100 tip. And we hope that the word spreads.”
Ms Etheridge and Tammy Lynn, like all the other gay people around the world who have formalised their relationships, haven’t been able to do it in church. But that may be about to change for some of them.
The Methodist Church in this country is considering making some kind of blessing available for civil unions. It has set up a committee to decide what it should do, but it won’t decide policy (according to Christian News Service) until its annual conference next year. So that might be a start.
In Ireland, Dr Robert McCarthy, the Dean of St Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin, said that his church (The Church of Ireland, not the Catholic) needed to “recognise reality”. He told The Irish Independent: “People now tend to get married when they have children and that marriage becomes the official recognition a relationship exists. In this context, it is probably right that same-sex relationships, which are perfectly natural for some people, should be recognised by the State and why not by the Church?”
In Sweden the state church is way ahead of this and has endorsed a proposal to create a liturgy for the blessing of same-sex unions very soon. To receive the blessing service a couple would have to have signed a civil partnership agreement. Sweden, like Britain, doesn’t permit same-sex marriage it has a form of civil union where couples sign an official registry – and get limited rights.
But the Swedes are thinking putting that right. The Swedish parliament has also set up a committee to examine the possibility of upgrading to full marriage rights for gay people. Which should give hope to those of us in Britain who think we’ve been short-changed with “civil partnerships”. The Swedes show progress is possible. Let’s hope Mr Blair is watching.
In this country, evangelical Christians (don’t they ever sleep?) said, according to Virtue Online that “it would be inadvisable for Christians to enter civil partnerships if only to avoid causing scandal”.
The latest group of religious maniacs to jump on this bandwagon is “Anglican Mainstream” which sent a letter to the Church of England’s House of Bishops saying they were “concerned” about the bishops’ decision to allow vicars to enter civil partnerships on the proviso they don’t have any rumpy-pumpy with their partners. They say the bishops are naïve to imagine that vicars married to their same-sex partners will “eschew sexual intimacy”. The Sheffield branch of Reform – another lot of right-wing holy joes – issues a statement calling on “all authentic Bible-believing Anglicans in the diocese not to take Holy Communion with or from clergy who register under the Civil Partnership Act.”
Other than that, all seems to be on track. Local authorities have been told by central government to promote the new law, and some have done so more enthusiastically than others. Even the old-style Tories in Bromley have backed down on their ban on ceremonies at the local register office, and now the Northern Ireland town of Lisburn (which has a similar ban) is under pressure to lift it.
But no doubt there are others who will be throwing brickbats rather than confetti. We have heard reports of po-faced registrars who say they will refuse to carry out gay registrations because of their religious convictions – although a register office is quite definitely a secular space where religion plays no part. Registrars are civil servants, not servants of the church, so no formal accommodation must be made for them to opt out.
Naturally, we don’t want some whingeing Wally casting clouds over our big day, with face that suggests he’s been licking the toilet bowl, but at the same time dissenting registrars mustn’t be let off the hook. It would be a profound insult if civil servants were permitted to be exempted from dealing with us because of their own narrow-mindedness.
All that aside – if you are doing the deed this month, I wish you every success in your future lives. But please remember – this law is not a toy to play with, it’s a binding, legal contract that is very difficult to get out of. It is something that needs to be undertaken only after a great deal of thought. Optimism on its own is not enough.