A prominent newspaper published an article a week ago that includes a photo of an adorable young couple, both in white bridal veils, kissing happily in the midst of a crowded street. The caption pinned to this image reads, “Threat: Homosexuals in bridal veils kiss in the street. Such communions would jeopardise the stability of our country” (I can barely write that down with a straight face). Unsurprisingly, the newspaper I mention is the Daily Mail. So perhaps “prominent” is a misleading epithet.
I’m sure much of my readership will have come across this article whilst it has been circulating Facebook, and I hope that the majority of them, like me, were disgusted by it. Lord Carey, Former Archbishop of Canterbury, has attacked David Cameron’s support for gay marriage, claiming that “it threatens to fatally weaken what is still one of our country’s greatest strengths – the institution of marriage.” LibDem equalities minister Lynne Featherstone has in turn hit back, pointing out that “it is the government’s fundamental job to reflect society… [Marriage] is owned by neither the state nor the Church… it is owned by the people.” Quite right too. It’s not as if straight couples will suddenly develop a taste for pink feather-boas and appletinis if people of the same gender are allowed to marry. And including gay people in marriage is key to achieving equality for the homosexual community. Some people argue that Civil Partnerships are just as good as getting married, as they now include roughly the same rights (and responsibilities) as marriage. However, this misses the point, as the problem is one of identity and inclusion – creating a separate term for same-sex couples is like a reassuring pat on the back for all the mildly homophobic out there. “Don’t worry, dears, it’s not real marriage – they’re not the same as you.” It’s all about symbolism. As
However, there seems to be a worrying lack of general uproar about the controversy. Whilst there are many groups lobbying the government in favour of gay marriage, the general public appears decidedly apathetic about the debate. If this were an issue to do with race, or even gender (which itself has recently become a much more back-seat issue than it deserves), there would be well-mannered chaos amidst the British populace, with people setting down their tea-mugs or pints of ale in alarm, and politely decrying discrimination. Does this disparity reflect a still mildly homophobic society? I fear so. Which presents a problem for Featherstone’s idea that marriage belongs to the people – if “the people” are kept quiet by the opiate of their vague, ingrained prejudices, then cultural and social acceptance for those still crying out to be recognised will never happen.
So what exactly are these culturally entrenched prejudices that keep people indistinctly wary of “the gays”? My Durham readership will be fully acquainted with the “myth-busters” recounted time and again over LGBT Awareness Week. We are bombarded with statistics that dispel certain damaging stereotypes, such as the notion that gay people are necessarily more promiscuous than heteros, that homosexuality is somehow “unnatural” (usually justified by the erroneous idea that it never occurs among animals, which even if it were true is precarious logic), or that homosexuality is usually the product of some kind of psychological trauma. However, there also are a few prejudices that are not so extensively tackled during these campaigns, and I believe that it is these which are keeping the general public so silent on the issue.
The key one is the association between homosexuality and HIV. As a young and (relatively) liberal group, those within the bubble are unlikely to have internalized this particular preconception, and yet it is one that seriously filters the way many members of the older generations perceive homosexuality. This is, in a way, understandable, given that they lived through the horrifying AIDS epidemic of the 80s and onward, which was, at first, largely spread through sex between men. However, this does not make it a forgivable prejudice. Nowadays, whilst it is true that homosexual men maintain a comparatively high level of HIV infection in Britain, transmission through heterosexual sex is now the biggest cause of the disease’s spread. Imagine how differently the AIDS epidemic would be viewed if it had occurred after gay relationships had become socially acceptable in general society, and if homosexual men had been warned about the need to protect themselves against this disease. This could have been done in the 80s – STIs in general are not a recent phenomenon, they’ve been around for centuries – and yet it was swept under the rug because of the stigma attached to homosexuality. By stigmatizing this particular way of life, we are discouraging gay men from being informed about issues like HIV, but this will not stop people who love each other from having sex, and thus putting themselves at risk if unprotected by education.
Legalizing gay marriage is an exciting prospect – it would be such a huge step towards fighting the kinds of stigma that ultimately put peoples’ health and lives at risk. Personally, I’m not even sure marriage is the right path for me, but if I do decide to plunge into the pitfalls and summits of matrimony, I don’t want my decision to be in the least affected by whether my partner happens to have in-y or out-y genitalia. Just like I don’t care if they have short or long hair, dark or light skin. And if I don’t give a damn, then neither should society.