There are high hopes that Ken Livingstone’s charming gesture to inaugurate a “partnership register” in London will, in the fullness of time, lead to something a little more legally meaningful. Even if the certificate that comes with the registration has no official significance, at least the launch put the whole issue of gay partnership rights firmly on to the agenda.
Surprisingly, there was little resistance on the day. In fact, from some right-wing sources, there was an element of grudging good will, and recognition of the injustices. Even Richard Littlejohn, The Sun’s self-regarding “star” columnist, headed one of his outpourings “Why I’m backing gay weddings”. Mr Littlejohn said that he expected the “wedding” of Ian Burford and Alex Cannell (who were first in the queue) to make him squirm with embarrassment, but to his surprise he found it “rather sweet and touching. And not the slightest bit offensive.”
Mr Littlejohn – and we have to listen to what he says, I suppose, because he is a leading light of that ugly rump of ill-informed bar room opinion that seems to pervade much of Britain’s printed media – catalogued the petty discriminations and humiliations that can attend gay relationships. “Why should a homosexual be denied visiting rights when his partner is seriously ill in hospital?” Littlejohn rightly wanted to know. “Why should a man who has lived in a council flat for donkey’s years be evicted when his partner dies, simply because his name was not on the rent book? Why should a lesbian have to go to an industrial tribunal to get the same employment benefits as a married colleague? People should be able to transfer their pensions to someone with whom they have been in a long-term relationship, married or otherwise.”
The Daily Telegraph’s equivalent of Richard Littlejohn – the ridiculous Tom Utley – also felt that the partnership register was “right”, but for the wrong reasons. “At first I was against the register,” he wrote, “believing it would cost me money through my council tax. But even that charge will not stick. At a hefty £85 per entry, the register looks like becoming a nice little earner for the Greater London Authority.”
As far as Mr Utley is concerned, the whole thing is about money. He’s happy if the certificate can help persuade those who practise discrimination against gay couples to be a little less hard, but he is not happy about the equalisation of inheritance tax and pension rights. “Here, we are talking about big money, and we cannot afford to be sentimental… To put it bluntly, the state has a strong vested interest in promoting heterosexual marriage – but almost none in seeing that homosexual couples stay together. The state needs a constant supply of well-adjusted and law-abiding children – and countless studies show that marriage offers the best conditions in which to produce them. The state does not need homosexual partnerships.”
Mr Utley concludes by saying that churchmen will be ritually shocked by Ken Livingstone’s symbolic register: “We all know that God disapproves of homosexual acts,” he says, “so let us leave God out of this, for the moment.”
If only we could. The plain fact, however, is that when Lord Lester’s and Jane Griffiths’ proposed private members’ bills are introduced into the Lords and the Commons, there will be a general uprising from the religious establishment, who will be claiming breach of copyright on something that they consider to be exclusively theirs – namely, matrimony. They will see it as their duty to man the barricades in defence of “traditional marriage” and fight the introduction of any compassionate, progressive change in the law. Valerie Riches of Family and Youth Concern (a woman not noted for her kind-heartedness in public) started the ball rolling when she told The Daily Mail: “It’s a move towards making themselves socially acceptable as married couples and I don’t think it’s possible. It is another attempt to undermine the whole concept of marriage.”
This has been the story in all the Europe countries that have attempted, and sometimes succeeded, in introducing their particular variation on this partnership theme. The religious have resisted and protested every step of the way. At present in Austria, the Church has been riven by a suggestion that gay relationships might be blessed on hallowed ground. The Catholic weekly, The Tablet reported that: “Influential branches of the Austrian Catholic Men’s Association have distanced themselves from its recent proposal for a special church blessing for gay couples. According to the Association’s Vienna and Salzburg branches, the controversial proposal, which was rejected by the bishops’ conference, was published without consultation and ‘contradicts church doctrine’.”
At the same time, the Calvinist Church in Austria is in favour of gay blessings and has published a list of churches where this is possible. The Lutherans haven’t decided on the issue, out of “consideration for conservative Lutherans”.
Then The Guardian reported that England’s Roman Catholic primate, Cardinal Cormac Murphy O’Connor, had stepped in to stop the blessing of a long-term gay relationship. It was being conducted by Right Reverend John Crowley, Catholic Bishop of Middlesbrough, who was set to say mass to celebrate the 25-year partnership of Julian Filochowski, the director of the Cafod aid agency, and Martin Prenderghast, former director of the Catholic Aids Link charity. The Cardinal rang moments before the service was to begin and forbade it. The Vatican is now, in its inimitably sinister way, “investigating” the bishop of Middlesbrough.
But, according to research conducted by Alan Bray, author of a soon-to-be published book called The Friend, church blessings for same sex couples were quite common between the 14th and 19th centuries. According to a report in The Guardian, there are lots of commemorative gravestones and memorials around the country which indicate that two people of the same sex were buried together in respect for the relationship they had when they were alive. “In Merton College Oxford, a brass dating from the 14th century records the burial together of John Bloxham and John Whytton, showing the two figures standing side by side holding hands in prayer,” reports Stephen Bates, The Guardian’s religious correspondent. “Another dating from 1684 in Christ’s College chapel, Cambridge, celebrates the ‘connubium’ or marriage of John Finch and Thomas Baines, illustrated by a knotted cloth. Nearby in Gonville and Caius College chapel a memorial of 1619 commemorates Thomas Legge and John Gostlin with a flame uplifted by two hands with a Latin inscription which translates as: Love joined them living. So may the earth join them in their burial. O Legge, Gostlin’s heart you still have with you.”
But lest we get the impression that gay partnerships were common and approved of in days of yore, we have Andrew Carey – son of the Archbishop of Cant. – pouring cold water on the idea.
He writes in The Church of England Newspaper that journalists are trying to paint “these friendships as equivalent of modern-day homosexuality”. They were nothing of the sort, he insists, and “spiritual kinships” of this kind were not sexual and the participants were not “married” in any recognisable sense.
“The Church has always regarded marriage as the pinnacle of God-ordained relationships. The self-identity of gay Christians cannot be read back into history in any kind of straightforward way,” Mr Carey opines. He says that the search for antique evidence to justify modern causes “must be resisted if we are not to corrupt the study of history completely”.
Excuse me? But isn’t the Christian church famous for repeatedly rewriting history to its own advantage? We don’t need lectures from Christians about perverting history – they are the past masters!
The fact is, though, that when the issue comes before Parliament, Lady Young will be gently prodded back to consciousness, and battle will commence. I can imagine that the propagandists at the Christian Institute are already writing her speeches and concocting another of their slanderous pamphlets that will be called something like “Gay Marriage: the end of all Christian life as we know it and the final insult to all God-fearing people, amen.”
But gay “marriage” is not what we are asking for. Nowhere (except in lazy newspaper headlines) has anyone asked for “marriage”. We want partnership rights, plain and simple. Let heterosexuals keep their blessed, misery-making institution for themselves. And let gay Christians fight a separate battle for the right to celebrate their unions in church. We cannot wait another century for the Pope to change his mind, and the Archbishop to relent in his opposition. We need legal protection, and we need it now.
In the meantime, we have to go at it piece-meal, fighting each issue separately. The Observer reported that “Armed forces plan to give gay partners full married benefits”. Such an approach simply creates discrimination, as those outside the armed forces are denied these benefits.
Let’s thank Ken Livingstone for getting the debate started, but let us also not underestimate what lies ahead. The Independent was quite clear that it doesn’t see much scope for progress in the near future – “such a prospect still appears a long way off” it said. But that doesn’t mean that we should not press on with optimism.
So let’s don our battle fatigues once more, roll up our sleeves and make “pretend family relationships” very much into legally-recognised real ones.