GAY TIMES January 2004

Terry Sanderson’s new autobiography “The Reluctant Gay Activist” is now available on Amazon

“My government will maintain its commitment to increased equality and social justice by bringing forward legislation on the registration of civil partnerships between same-sex couples,” said the Queen, acknowledging, for the first time in her 51 years on the throne, that she has gay subjects.

Even more staggering, from an establishment point of view, was a leader in The Daily Telegraph carrying the headline: “Gay couples should be equal under the law” and making a passionate case for partnership registration. Is this the same Daily Telegraph that only a few short years ago wouldn’t use the world gay or would only do so if enclosed within dismissive quotation marks?

What further proof can one need that there has been a seismic shift in attitudes to gay rights in a very short time? Only three years ago, that editorial would have been utterly unthinkable. Now it has happened. Frame it, for it is almost as significant as the Bill itself.

Of course, in media terms there is still one final fortress to conquer, and that it is the intractable Daily Mail. Its reaction to the news about civil partnership registration was predictably apoplectic. (And this idiocy will not cease until the paper’s editor, Paul Dacre – whose knee jerks more often than a can-can dancer – steps down and takes his reactionary agenda with him.)

The Mail, as is its wont on these occasions, wheeled out the frothy-mouthed Melanie Phillips to predict Armageddon and the end of all life on earth, and possibly the universe, if this goes through. “How can any responsible government even contemplate such a nihilistic piece of social vandalism?” she hyperventilated. “The whole gay rights agenda is a direct attack on heterosexual monogamous marriage… one has to see the gay rights movement for what it really is: a highly-organised, pan-Western movement which uses victim culture to advance its interests, with the result that personal liberty and independence of thought and action are replaced by the tyranny of the most powerful interest groups over the weak.”

Sending a message from the real world to the planet Melanie, Jeanette Winterson in The Times, wrote: “There is no Pink Plot to undermine traditional family values. Bigots will warn us all about the disintegration of society and the collapse of marriage, but marriage is a robust institution that in itself is continually evolving. If marriages no longer last for ever, it is because we are all living longer, and because women in particular have different expectations of married life. Recognising gay relationships does not harm marriage – what it does is help us all be part of the same family.”

The Christian Science Monitor in the USA took a look at what impact “gay marriage” has had on countries where it has been legal for a while. What it found was (sorry to disappoint you Melanie) “the social impact of gay marriage has been less dramatic than some people had expected.” The paper quotes Kees Waaldijk of the University of Leiden as saying: “It’s difficult to notice a difference in general that has developed in the last two years.”

But that doesn’t mean there aren’t problems. Freedom of religion is guaranteed under the Dutch constitution and under this umbrella some registrars have refused to register gay couples. “One town did not renew the contract of a registrar who said she would not be available for same-sex marriage,” reported The Christian Science Monitor. “The woman appealed. ‘We still don’t know if she has the right to invoke her conscience,’ Waaldijk said.”

In this country the Christian Institute is making precisely that point. Will there be opt-outs for registrars who don’t – because of their bigotry…er, I mean, religious conscience – want to register gay partnerships? You can be sure that when the legislation comes before parliament the CI will have its puppets in the House of Lords trying to secure these exemptions, and others – that’s if they can’t manage to scupper it altogether.

However, we can be optimistic that the proposals won’t have too rough a ride through parliament (although we must not be complacent at this stage). Michael Howard, the new leader of the Tories has indicated that he intends to give his troops a free vote on the issue. It seems this legislation has serendipitously arrived at the very moment that Howard is trying to demonstrate his party really is compassionate and inclusive.

He is even allowing the openly gay MP Alan Duncan to speak from the front bench for the party during the debate. The Guardian reported: “Insiders believe Mr Howard gave Mr Duncan the job of shadow secretary of state for constitutional affairs with this debate in mind.”

However, the Tories may complicate things by trying to introduce the concept of registered partnerships for a wider range of dependent relationships – like elderly siblings living together.

Other unexpected “supporters” have emerged from the woodwork. Former Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Carey, said on the BBC1 “Breakfast with Frost” programme that: “In my book, as long as we don’t call it marriage… there may well be a case for looking at civil partnerships.” Well, that’s very magnanimous of him. Now why doesn’t he go away and shove his head in a bucket?

Then came Lady Hale, the first woman Law Lord (Law Lady?). She told The Independent: “My present view is that there is a strong case for introducing a legal commitment between people who are unable to marry, principally gay and lesbian partners.”

So, it seems everything’s coming up roses. This cannot be said in the USA, where the same issue is causing a stink of the first order.

When the Massachusetts Supreme Court ruled that gay couples could not be denied the right to marry, it set off a reaction so filled with hate it made me feel rather sick. But once again, gay people are being used as a “wedge issue” by politicians and priests, anxious to exploit us for their own ends. Every raving reverend and opportunist politico – from tin pot local bigots right up to the President (is there a difference?) immediately jumped on the bandwagon and started with the anti-gay invective.

Republicans immediately began claiming that the decision was “judicial tyranny” and didn’t reflect what the people wanted. However, newspaper polls showed that more than 50 per cent of people in Massachusetts approved the court’s decision, with only 38 per cent opposing it.

Perhaps this issue above all others illustrates the difference between European and American culture; between our precious liberalism and their accursed fundamentalism.

As soon as the Massachusetts ruling was announced, Bush insisted that marriage was “a sacred institution between a man and a woman” and that the court had violated that principle. While he was in London, Bush said: “I will work with congressional leaders to do what is legally necessary to defend the sanctity of marriage.”

The Times reported that “hoping to short circuit further rulings more than 760,000 people have signed an on-line petition calling for a federal constitutional amendment outlawing same sex marriage. Conservative activists are vowing to make this a litmus-test in the presidential campaign.”

An amendment to the US constitution is a major undertaking, however. It requires two-thirds majorities in both Houses and in the legislature of three quarters of all states. It could take about ten years to achieve. I think maybe President Bush will have come a cropper before then.

Marriage falls within the jurisdiction of individual states at present, and so different models are being created in different states. Just as they are in different countries of Europe.

Of all the countries here that have instituted some kind of gay partnership law, none is the same model and none will recognise the legality of any of the others at the moment. But now that we are part of the European Union, surely that could be put right?

Katherine Boele-Woelki, a professor of private international law at the University of Utrecht thinks that it will be “within two to three years”. She told the Christian Science Monitor of “two Dutch men living in Germany who came back to the Netherlands to be married. When they returned to Germany, authorities there regarded the men as cohabiting partners, with no rights as a married couple.”

Registered partnerships are now available in approximately 10 European countries, but cross-border non-recognition will increasingly create legal complications that will have to be addressed.

For the moment, though, we should take some time to savour our victory and gather our energy for this final push. This is a momentous time for gay people in Britain and – because we will still be here when Bush is long gone and forgotten – maybe for gay people all over the world.

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