There was a time in my career as a gay activist when I used to say: “It will never happen in my lifetime.” But now I’m having to eat humble pie, because just so long as I don’t get run over by a number 69 bus within the next couple of years, I now think it will happen in my lifetime.
I’m talking about gay marriage.
The government has now launched its long-promised consultation on what it calls “Civil Partnership Registration” and I hope that everyone with an interest will respond (find the paper at http://www.womenandequalityunit.gov.uk/research/index.htm).
We were led to believe that the Government would dodge the issue until after the next election, anticipating, as it did, some kind of fox-hunting-style backlash. Now we are told by Paul Waugh in The Independent that, in fact, the whole thing has the personal backing of the Prime Minister who has said that he wants it included in November’s Queen’s Speech.
When the proposals were published, there was, as expected, a reaction – but it turned out to be overwhelmingly supportive. The Independent hailed the development as “A historic partnership between gay rights and the law”, and naturally The Guardian carried an editorial in support.
Only the usual suspects – The Daily Mail, Sun and The Telegraph – were trying to pour cold water on the celebrations.
“The meaning of marriage” was the portentous headline over The Telegraph’s leader on the topic. “The question should be asked whether society has any strong interest in encouraging stable partnerships between homosexuals, of the same sort of as its interest in encouraging marriage. How many gay rights campaigners actually want parity with married couples, come to that, and how many are simply making a propaganda point?”
Well, this gay rights campaigner for a start certainly wants parity. I will certainly be registering my relationship of 22 years standing when I get the opportunity, and it won’t be to make propaganda.
Peter Tatchell was widely quoted as saying that the Government’s plans were “heterophobic” in that the new civil partnership register was not available to straight couples. He said that “sexual apartheid” was in operation because the government would be creating two different kinds of partnership registration – marriage for straights and something else for gays. He called for a single registration system that would be available to everybody, offering exactly the same rights and responsibilities.
The problem is the government’s reluctance to use the term “gay marriage”, scared it’ll get another pasting from the Jesusites who consider “holy matrimony” to be their exclusive territory.
But Mr Blair should take heart from Canada, which is showing that governments don’t have to be held to ransom by out-of-touch churches any longer. The Canadian government has agreed to change the definition of marriage so that it can apply equally to same-sex and different-sex couples. Writing about this in The Church Times, David Harris noted: “In Ontario, gays and lesbians can already get married, because the court there has overturned the existing law as being contrary to the Federal Charter of Rights and Freedoms. It was that decision, coupled with similar lower-court rulings around the country, which persuaded the Liberal government that it was time to act, or face the inevitable ruling from the Supreme Court confirming the views of the lower court. That decision swung it – and the knowledge that, unlike the Anglican Communion, citizens were not going to rise up and throw out the government at the next election. Canada isn’t splitting over the issue of gay marriage, despite small pockets of resistance.”
So, you see, Mr Blair, it can be done, and the message that is coming over loud and clear is that the sky won’t fall on your head if you’re brave and ditch the prosaic-sounding Civil Partnership Register and call it plain old marriage instead.
Or, as Johann Hari put it in The Independent: “If it looks like marriage, then call it a marriage.”
Mr Hari has a personal stake in the issue in that he’d quite like to marry his own boyfriend. “Insisting that marriage is solely for straight people is a way of saying that the love I feel for a man is less real than the love I would have felt for a woman had I been born straight,” he wrote. “It is a constant denigration of an emotion that is as pure and beautiful as anything my straight friends feel, and – I suddenly feel like a light being turned on – it hurts. The denial of my right to marry is a perpetual, needling reminder that our society doesn’t quite consider gays and lesbians to be People Like Us.”
Once again “society” is invoked. But who is this “society” that is standing in our way? Is it Ann Widdecombe who says the proposed new legislation “makes a mockery” of the holy state? Or is it the Christian Institute, which calls our relationships “counterfeit”? Or is it Melanie Phillips, the god-awful peddler of dubious “morality” in The Daily Mail, who asks: “Is it a ruse to enable gay couples to have rights without responsibilities?”
These whingeing, whining religionists are a small minority. An opinion poll for Panorama showed 61% of people supported registration of same-sex relationships.
Libby Purves in The Times indicated her own exasperation with the reactionaries. She wrote: “We should untwist this knot of yammering protest with sharp, impatient tugs, because it is mostly nonsense and often rather nasty, prurient nonsense at that. Ministers who become involved in the future must stick to their guns and not be spooked by critics. The legal change is a vital one: this is not about sex, it is about fairness and decent human interaction. The change in the law must go through, in a sensible and humane form, and soon.”
Ms Purves dismisses church objections, telling “thundering churchmen” to shut their traps about gay marriage unless they are also prepared to condemn outright all cohabiting couples – something that would make them even more unpopular than they are already.
Philip Hensher in The Independent was equally robust in his dismissal of religious objections. “The point that churchmen don’t accept or understand, is that the vast majority of people in this country simply don’t give a toss what Christians think. And with very good reason…The idea that some man in a cassock has any kind of authority over the question of whether, at some future point, I get to marry my boyfriend is frankly insulting in the extreme. We’re just not interested.”
Writing to the editor of The Guardian, Darren Hackett of Huddersfield hit the nail on the head when he said: “This fight has always been about equality, not rights per se. The whole point of equality is just that: you are equal. In pandering to the homophobes, the real issue of equality has been lost…I see these proposals as a sop to the gay community and a ‘managing’ of homophobes with its ‘rights and responsibilities’ buzz words. It is not equality to have the state refuse to one group that which is given to the whole.”
The battleground is clear – we should push for this new legislation to introduce gay marriage. We shouldn’t run away from the word just because those blethering medievalists at Church House stamp their bejewelled feet. If these people want biblical literalism, they are welcome to apply it in their own lives but they have absolutely no right to foist it on the rest of us through the law. Maybe they would find life more congenial if they were to emigrate to some sympathetic African country where fundamentalism is the norm. Life would be so much more pleasant for them – and us – if they bogged off to, say, Uganda.
As an indication of how stuck-in-a-rut the churches have become, we have only to look at how the Conservative Party is evolving.
To start with, the Tory leader Ian Duncan Smith has announced that his MPs are to have a free vote when the Bill comes before parliament, and the party’s most prominent modernisers, John Bercow and Oliver Letwin, have indicated that they will support the proposals. There will be others who won’t, of course, but that doesn’t change the fact that there has been a sea change of attitudes within the Conservative hierarchy.
Writing in The Daily Telegraph, John Bercow – who is the MP for Buckingham – promised: “I for one will vote for change.”
He quoted from letters he had received from gay people who had suffered grievously from the lack of protection in their relationship. “My partner died in 1995 after 51 years together,” read one of them, “In his will I was the sole beneficiary and I had to pay £30,688.40 in inheritance tax. Had he married a woman for even one day no tax would have to be paid.”
A lesbian who had been in a relationship with another woman for 17 years until her partner died of cancer told how she was denied the pension that her partner had assiduously paid into over the years, leaving her, and the child they had assumed joint responsibility for, penniless.
“The present law is so blatantly unfair,” says Mr Bercow, “as to raise the question why anyone should object in principle to changing it.”
We may have been saying this for years, but it is actually quite pleasant to hear a Tory making the case for us in the pages of one of the most reactionary newspapers in the country.
This is further evidence for Mr Blair that it is safe to be bold, to go further, and to offer us complete parity with heterosexuals rather than presenting us with something different that keeps us separate from our fellow citizens.
As Libby Purves wrote: “A well-conceived legal contract of marriage would, I believe, sweeten and civilise the place that homosexual couples play in society (or, as someone flippantly remarked, why should gays get away scot-free while the rest of us get trapped?). It would certainly distinguish the many honest, faithful and stable partnerships from the culture of heartless, random promiscuity that too often is identified with gay men. It would bring families into the loop in a formal way, and thus offer a touchstone of normality to anxious parents. It would give middle-aged, untrendy, comfortable couples a way to introduce one another without being forced to say ‘partner’ all the time and leave their acquaintances wondering whether, perhaps, these two men merely share business premises.”
So, there we are. It’s hankies at the ready girls, because although I may not be getting married in the morning (and I certainly won’t need to worry about getting to the church on time), I’m certainly planning to wed quite soon.
Which is something I never thought I would say.