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.

1 comment:

  1. I think it's perfectly OK to hope that if you have kids they turn out to be straight. That's a very different thing from wanting straight kids. That might sound like a meaningless semantic distinction, but the way I see it is this:

    If a parent is going to think any less of their kids or love them any less if they are gay (or any of LGBQT) then that is a bad thing, with no shadow of a doubt. Any parent who expressed that view to me would get a (literal or metaphorical) smack round the head. It's homophobia, pure and simple. (Of course, whether parents would actually react in the same way when faced with a child coming out is a different question. People who may have previously been anti-homosexuality can often be won over when a close friend or family member comes out)

    But hoping that your child doesn't have to go through the painful process of coming out and being gay is an entirely rational view. No matter how good our equality is, life for gay people is never going to be as easy as for straight people. A minority is always going to be a minority, and when ~95% of people are straight, there is always going to be an expectation that you (generic) are straight as well unless there's good reason to suppose otherwise. So there will still be a process of "coming to terms" followed by "coming out".
    Even if there's no discrimination against gay people, they still face challenges. On one level, with far fewer people to choose from, it's harder to find a partner ... and that's even ignoring the social faux pas of a gay person unwittingly asking a straight person out. Same-sex couples can't have children, and while adoption and surrogacy are options, they are unlikely to be as desirable an option for most people as having their own children.

    Don't get me wrong, I don't think gay people get a raw deal at all ... at least not in Britain and many other countries. Being gay, I am very glad to live in 21st century Britain, and I know that my life will be a whole lot easier than at any other time in the past, or in many other countries around the world even now. I find craven acceptance of discrimination, such as the Harvey Milk School, utterly abhorrent, and I think it has a really negative impact on the battle to win hearts and minds. But I don't see the view expressed here as being anywhere near that. It isn't craven acceptance of discrimination, it's pragmatic realism, and it's entirely justified.