Although we still have the insulting Section 28 hanging around the statute book like a bad smell, events last month made its crude references to “pretended family relationships” look particularly dated.
The bandwagon started rolling at the Liberal Democrat Conference. According to The Independent, Susan Kramer gained rapturous applause when she “appealed to the British public to support legalised gay partnerships because the current law was simply not fair. Surely Middle England would agree that such discrimination before the law is not fair.’” The conference accepted her argument and passed the resolution.
The following weekend, The Sunday Telegraph reported on its front page that Mary MacLeod, the chief executive of a Government advisory body called the National Parenting and Family Institute, had said that it was “hard to argue against” the case for giving homosexuals the same rights as heterosexuals. Ms MacLeod had opined, according to the Sunday Telegraph, that it was a human rights issue. The paper said that her remarks had embarrassed the Government, which had studiously tried to avoid the topic until now, fearing another debacle to rival Section 28.
At the Labour Party Conference in Brighton, the Home Secretary Jack Straw agreed that the advent of the Human Rights Act might force him to put the issue before Parliament, but that if he did so it would be as a free vote – and that he personally was unlikely to be voting in favour.
Then The Observer revealed that adoption agencies are making a special push to recruit gay couples as adoptive parents. And if, for you, other people’s children do not make a “real” family relationship, a scientific report was published claiming that it was perfectly feasible, in the light of the research into cloning, for two men to produce a child without the need for a female egg.
The potential for non-pretend – in fact, very real – gay families has never looked rosier.
Naturally, the normally cold blood of the reactionaries began to boil. In The Daily Telegraph, Tom Utley was writing that it had been “the most triumphant month for the gay lobby since December 1967, when Parliament legalised homosexual acts by consenting adults in private. It is a measure of the astonishing success of the gay rights campaign that politicians are so desperately anxious to please homosexuals, and so terrified of saying or doing anything that might upset them.”
(Which politicians can he be referring to? Surely not Ann Widdecombe, who said of the idea of gay marriage: “It is inappropriate and we will resist it. If this is another bit of chaos to come from the Human Rights Act then we will fight it.” And surely he can’t have meant Norman (Slobodan) Tebbit, either. The nauseating Tory has-been, wrote in The Sunday Telegraph: “If sodomites have the right to marry, would it not be ‘inevitable’ for paedophiles to establish their human right to child sex and ‘inevitably’ would follow those with a taste for bestiality.”)
Anyway, back to Tom Utley’s fantasy world, where “the battle for gay rights has entered the final phase which is not to persuade the Government, employers and the public to respect differences between human beings. It is to convince us all that homosexual love is exactly the same as the heterosexual sort, and that homosexual marriages are the precise equivalent of marriages between men and women.”
But, as he concludes, gay marriages can “only be parodies of the real thing, just as sodomy mimics and mocks the act of procreation”.
Over in The Daily Mail, the Director of the Christian Institute, Colin Hate (er, sorry that’s Colin Hart. Oh well, maybe I was right the first time) was saying: “Any free vote would be a full-scale attack on marriage. Marriage has been established in English law for centuries – you can no more vote to change it than you can vote to change the number of hours of sunlight in a day.”
The churches are mostly in panic mode over the whole issue, of course. They regard “marriage” as their own property, and they will fight tooth and nail to ensure that homosexuals do not get their filthy hands on it. In the Netherlands, where gay people have just been given partnership rights on a par with heterosexuals, the only dissenting voice was that of the church. According to The Tablet, the Archbishop of Utrecht said: “We did everything possible to combat this law, but we were not listened to. Many Protestants and some Catholics do not obey the morality of the Catholic Church. This is the situation… It is a sign of the way our people’s thinking has changed with regard to certain fundamental points on which human society is based.”
Here, the Bishop of Rochester, the Rt Rev Nazir-Ali went into drama queen mode to tell The Church of England Newspaper that the culture of human rights that has developed in Europe “will drive the Church into exile”. He cited gay marriage as one of the issues that could destroy Anglicanism. “The desire to deny what the Bible teaches about the human condition will put the church in a corner,” he said portentously. “We must prepare for a period of exile.”
Even if the bishop could qualify for an Oscar for services to melodrama, there is little doubt that he is totally out of touch with the people who pay his wages. John Dowie is one such. He is an admitted Christian, but he doesn’t go a bundle on his church’s homophobia. In an amusing tirade in The Independent headlined “A mad, mad church that won’t marry gays” he wrote: “I don’t know why it is, but when some people develop a belief in God, any sense of compassion, tolerance, humility, humour or, worse, a sense of shared humanity, flies straight out of the stained glass window.” He asks ranting religionists to “Look again at the New Testament and see what your main man had to say, not just about loving your neighbours, but loving your enemies also. Then have a good scratch around and see if you can find the passage in which he says: ‘Peter, you shall be the rock of my church. Just make sure you keep the gays out.’ I don’t think so.”
Indeed, when we leave the predictable reactionaries behind, there is a surprising amount of support for the idea of giving gay partnerships equal recognition – some of it from quite unlikely sources. Take A. N. Wilson who wrote in – of all places – The Sunday Telegraph: “In an old style monoculture guided by a single ethic… everyone was expected to conform to the pattern of life believed to be the norm. In a society which has become, of necessity, pluralistic in its attitudes to the emotional and domestic life, such monomorphic concepts of the law seem not merely unjust but impracticable.”
Even the Church Times ran an editorial supportive of formalised gay unions: “There are no objections to legal equality between married and single people; there should be none to extending this to homosexual couples.”
John Diamond in The Daily Express is all for it, too. He had learned from bitter experience that heterosexual marriage is not always the model to be preferred, as (the unmarried) Ann Widdecombe insists. “Whatever my first wife and I felt about each other when we started,” Diamond wrote, “when the end came, the only ruling the law was prepared to make was on our rights as property owners. And I can’t think of a reason why gay couples unable to have children shouldn’t have the same property rights as straight couples unwilling to have them. To allow a gay couple to have equal pension, tax or inheritance rights isn’t to make any moral judgment on the ‘rightness’ of homosexuality any more than it is to allow gays to have driving licences.”
He says that it is “paranoid nonsense” for the “self-styled family lobby” to insist that allowing gays to marry is anti-family because it reduces the marriage contract to one of property, while at the same time, and in some mysterious way, ‘promoting’ homosexuality.
“Part of the wedding contract,” says Diamond, “is about love, devotion and family – all the things I found in my second marriage. But I’d be just as devoted to my wife and children if we weren’t married: love is not something you can legislate for or against. Pensions, property and the rest of it, on the other hand, are.”
Much of the problem that will face us if Mr Straw keeps his word and brings the issue before Parliament will revolve around the word “marriage”. The traditionalists will say that marriage is really about providing a framework for the rearing of children. As Norman Tebbit said: “Homosexuals wish to hijack the world ‘marriage’ as they have hijacked the word ‘gay’. They are as free to share their beds with others of their choosing as are heterosexuals. They may if they wish devise ceremonies to mark a decision to set up partnerships but those are not and should not be described as marriage.”
The majority of gay families do not contain children – although one day they might – and so “marriage” may not be the best word to choose for our own partnership structures. Inventing another word or phrase to describe our unions would take the wind out of the sails of our enemies who are working themselves up into a major lather ready to defend to the death “traditional marriage”.
Let them keep “traditional marriage” (and its associated horror, divorce). Gay people can perhaps come up with a better model, and it will need another name that is not so loaded with emotive heterosexual baggage.
Given that the church is not going to change its policies soon (or probably ever) our partnerships are going to have to be civil affairs conducted at the registry office, so we could, perhaps, do as the French did and call them Civil Partnership Pacts—although the name does have the ring of two businessmen founding a factory rather than uniting their souls.
We could, on the other hand, go for something romantic like Love Unions, but that would risk leaving the guests squirming with embarrassment.
I’m sure we can come up with something appropriate that will defuse the fury of the “we must preserve marriage for heterosexuals” brigade. But if we insist on “marriage” we can expect the battle to be long, nasty and bitter.