Saturday, 1 June 2013
On Equal Marriage
Next week the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill faces its last major hurdle. The House of Lords will vote on Tuesday on an amendment that would throw the progress of the Bill into turmoil. Various faith groups and other anti-equal marriage campaigners are pushing hard to get this amendment accepted.
This issue is a particularly uncomfortable one for me. Not because I'm undecided - I'm a passionate supporter of the Bill. But because I try hard to approach all political issues - even contentious ones - analytically and with empathy towards those I disagree. But this one's making me angry.
In trying to understand why two defining moments come to mind.
The first was an argument with my best friend at the age of 18 (he's still my best friend). He is gay and I was the first person he came out to when we were 14. Because of our friendship I prided myself on having an unusually advanced understanding, for a straight teenager, of the traumas of growing up gay. On this occasion, though, I made a fool of myself. I can't remember the context but I told him that I wouldn't want to have a gay child because I'd worry they'd be bullied. He was furious with me; and it took me a while to understand why. Eventually I realised I was essentially admitting defeat on his behalf; resigning myself to accepting there would always be prejudice against him and anyone else of his sexuality. From that day on true equality for gay people has been right at the top of my personal agenda.
The second moment was in 2009 when I was working in David Cameron's policy unit. Somebody (possibly me) had suggested we should announce our support for equal marriage in the run up to the election. There was enough interest from senior people for there to be some discussion on the merits. And I quickly realised that one of my colleagues was strongly opposed. We spent the best part of two days arguing it out. We got nowhere. My liberalism and her faith were irreconcilable. Others saw that too and decided not to press ahead with such a controversial announcement pre-election. I've never been more frustrated and disappointed in a professional context.
So this debate feels very personal to me and I do really struggle to understand the mindset of the opposition. I realise much of it, as with my old colleague, comes from a position of faith which I don't have. But then plenty of people of faith support the change. As the psychologist Andrew Solomon has written:
"In the gnostic gospel of St Thomas, Jesus says, 'If you bring forth what is within you, what is within you will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what is within you will destroy you." When I run up against the the anti-gay positions of modern religious bodies, I often wish that St Thomas's words were canonical...Keeping the homosexuality locked away within me nearly destroyed me, and bringing it forth has nearly saved me".
Even more bewildering is the opposition from commentators who claim to have no real issue with equal marriage itself but complain that Cameron is making a tactical error by "prioritising" the issue. For a start this change costs nothing and there's no pressure on parliamentary time. But more than that correcting injustices wherever we find them should always be a priority. Passing this Bill would be a huge signal to the thousands of young people around the country keeping their true selves locked away. It would give thousands more people the opportunity to celebrate their relationship on the same level as their straight friends. How many chances does any Government have to have such a direct impact on so many people for so little cost? How can that not be a priority?
Perhaps sometimes it's OK to be angry.