Robert Hampton

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18th July 2013

La Reyne le veult
Posted by at 11.27pm | No responses | Gay, In the News

Rainbow flag fluttering in sunlight50 years ago, homosexuality was illegal. In an amazing turnaround, by the middle of next year, gay relationships will be on an (almost) equal footing to heterosexual ones, as the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill 2013 is now the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013, after Royal Assent was received on Wednesday afternoon.

I’ll be honest – there were times when I didn’t think it would happen. From the minute the plans were announced back in 2011, a formidable campaign against same-sex marriage was launched, unleashing old-school attitudes and opinions that I naively thought had disappeared from public discourse. Certain sections of society are not nearly as tolerant and accepting as we thought they were.

The leader of the Catholic Church in Scotland (or, as he is now known, the disgraced former leader of the Catholic Church in Scotland), Cardinal Keith O’Brien, launched an astonishing diatribe, describing same-sex marriage as a “grotesque subversion of a universally accepted human right”. The Telegraph and the Daily Mail were vociferous in their opposition.

The Coalition for Marriage – which described itself as a “grass roots” campaign despite being launched by luminaries such as the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Carey, and reality TV star Anne Widdecombe – set up a petition which, at the time of writing, has a rather pleasing 666,493 signatures. The Government’s own consultation ignored the organised petitions and form letter campaigns, but still revealed widespread opposition.

The cynical view was that this bill was David Cameron’s attempt to “modernise” the Tory party image. If that was his goal, it failed – more Conservative MPs voted against the bill than for it, and Tory MPs have been the most vociferous in their criticism of the bill. Political commentators talked of divisions in the Tory party and rumours swirled of leadership challenges to the Prime Minister. The very real lives and loves of LGBT people were rather lost amongst all the punditry.

I’m a Celebrity contestant Nadine Dorries suggested that gay marriage is only of interest to “metro elite gay activists” – because there are no gay people outside London or Manchester.

Sir Gerald Howarth, after the bill passed, described it as a “wretched” piece of legislation. He also said it had been “bulldozed” through Parliament. He must be reading a different edition of Hansard to me – the debates at all stages were very detailed – on 8th July, the House of Lords debated the bill until after midnight! If the bill didn’t receive proper scrutiny, it was entirely because a determined group of MPs attempted to derail it at every turn with specious arguments and procedural trickery. There was also the occasional bit of offensive language thrown in for good measure: Sir Gerald Howarth’s reference to the “aggressive homosexual community” has already passed into legend. Attitude magazine have proudly put the phrase on the front cover of the latest issue.

Peter Bone, who described gay marriage ideas as “nuts”, still won’t let it go – he has tabled a Private Members’ Bill demanding a referendum on the subject. The bill has almost no chance of becoming law, but it will take up Parliamentary time. I’m sure all those critics who said that gay marriage is a “distraction” and not a priority at a time of economic difficulty will be vocal in their criticism of Mr Bone.

Locally, the rollcall of shame includes Bootle MP Joe Benton, Wirral’s Esther McVey, Lancashire’s Rosie Cooper and – most disappointingly of all – John Pugh, the LibDem MP for Southport.

Naturally there were big celebrations, in particular outside Parliament, where a rainbow wedding cake was available on Monday evening as peers approved the bill.

I think it’s important to praise the MPs and Lords who supported this bill, as well as gay rights organisations such as Stonewall, who – after some initial reluctance – wholeheartedly backed the campaign. There was also a plethora of contributions from smaller organisations who organised online: the Coalition for Equal Marriage, Out4Marriage, Lobby a Lord.

Then there were the viral videos, such as this one – Homecoming:

For someone like me, who is in the fortunate position of having faced very little discrimination or homophobia, this was the natural conclusion of 15 years or so of progress on gay rights. For people a few years older than me, who faced very real dangers if they dared to come out, the pace of change in recent years must seem astounding. In a moving Independent piece, Patrick Strudwick articulates the life of a gay teen in the early 90s:

What did it feel like to be a gay teenager back then? The following thoughts ran in a depressive loop: I will not be able to have sex legally until I am 21. My teachers are not allowed to talk to me about being gay. Any business can refuse my custom. Future employers are free to fire me. Violence and hatred will stalk me, a prison for no wrongdoing. Aids could well bring a gasping, early death. I will never have children. I will never enjoy the family life I was raised within. I will never marry.

The outlook for LGBT people in this country is so much brighter and happier these days, even before this law was passed. Now, however, a clear signal has been sent that the same opportunities, rights and responsibilities are available to anyone, regardless of sexuality.

Amidst the jubilation, we should take time to remember that life isn’t all rosy for the LGBT community. The Act only applies to England and Wales. The Scottish Parliament is introducing its own legislation soon, but Northern Ireland is unlikely to consider this in the near future, meaning that marriages will only be recognised as Civil Partnerships there.

Homophobic bullying is rife in schools. Michael Gove, in a rare moment of sense, has pledged a clampdown on anti-gay bullying, but it remains to be seen how effective it will be.

Internationally, many LGBT people find themselves in a hostile environment. Russia has just enacted a draconian anti-gay law, while in Cameroon a prominent gay activist has been brutally killed.

The new law itself isn’t perfect: there are concerns about the some provisions in the act regarding trans people – especially the “Spousal Veto”. There is also a very serious inequality in regards to survivor benefits of pension schemes, meaning the widow or widower of a deceased same-sex partner could receive far less money than an equivalent opposite-sex partner.

So, a big step forward, but still much work to do. Now, who wants to get down on one knee for me?

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