Last fortnight saw the celebration of IDAHO (International Day Against Homophobia)*. This day marks the anniversary of the removal of homosexuality from the WHO* list of mental disorders in 1990. This is a worldwide (well, nearly worldwide) day with two aims in mind – both the celebration of progress in the acceptance of LGBTIQ* people and the recognition of the work yet to be done.
And what a lot of work there still is.
Barack Obama recently wowed the world as he ‘came out’ as being in favour of equal marriage for same-sex couples. What I personally found so astounding about this was the very idea that he would ever be against it. Sure, he has been doing much fence-sitting on the issue since his election, partly for political reasons, I’m sure, but it is surely a duty for the leader of the so-called ‘free world’ to be openly supportive of such rights.
Over on this side of the pond, the idea that same-sex couples could ‘marry’ has got certain people very hot under the collar (often, hot under the dog-collar). Cardinal Keith O’Brien, head of the Catholic Church in Scotland has been one rather vocal critic of the idea, describing it as “madness”, a contravention of human rights and a degeneration “even further into immorality”. This should perhaps come as little surprise. At this point I should certainly refrain from making sweeping attacks upon individuals or institutions because of their views. I could indeed mention the fact that it took nearly two thousand years before the Catholic Church officially stopped blaming today’s Jews for the execution of Jesus. Or perhaps I should dwell on the fact that the Bible exhibits many and various marriages outside the one-man-one-woman model since marriage has always been a social, rather than religious, affair. Suffice to say the following: religion should have no sway over the proceedings of civil affairs.
Caroline Lucas MP, leader of the Green Party, helped launch the Equal Love campaign, along with prominent Green and gay rights campaigner Peter Tatchell. Lucas is also the MP for the city with the biggest IDAHO celebration in the UK – Brighton.
I am proud to say that this has been perhaps the only thing that David Cameron has got right since arriving in number 10. In the political sphere, those on the Right and the Left have been refreshingly non-partisan about the affair. David Cameron signed up to the idea with the statement that he supported same-sex marriage because of the very fact that he is a conservative – that is to say, the government should keep its nose out of other people’s affairs. This is something that gay rights activists, and the Green Party, have been saying for years.
Now, credit where credit is due: under Tony Blair, the majority of the groundwork for same-sex marriage was laid out. We now have a system where same-sex couples can receive pretty much all the rights of straight couples. There are but a few differences left – and these are the ones that cause people like Keith O’Brien’s blood to boil:
1) If you’re given a peerage, an OBE, or other title, your civil partner doesn’t get a fancy name/nice badge/handshake with Mrs. Windsor either.
To be honest, I’m not much bothered about that one.
2) You can’t have a civil partnership in a religious establishment – or involve any religious content.
The opening up of this possibility – which already exists in some forms in Scotland – is something that has probably vexed rather a lot of religious establishments. And there is a fair amount of logic to this: why would you perform a ceremony that opposes your religious views in the place specifically designed for your religion? And the accompanying argument: why would anyone want to get a marriage from an institution that opposes them?!
I can’t imagine too much true conflict here. Those religious groups who accept gay marriage will want to (and will be able to) perform them. Those opposed, such as the O’Brien Squad, will not be forced to. Pretty much every religious denomination has a clear line on same-sex marriage, so those accepting it will be clear from the outset.
3) The word “marriage”
Out of sheer desperation, the arguments have boiled down the linguistic level. Many people see the institution as something ‘profound’ and ‘traditional’; the ‘foundation’ of our society. Well, sure. But since civil partnerships are exactly the same in all but name – including such child-related rights as adoption –there is surely no threat to this.
The pressure is now on Cameron and his party, not least from their coalition partners, the Lib Dems, and from other parties like the Greens, and campaign groups, to stop this inequality – and not to give in to heckling backbenchers. Anti-gay-marriage campaigners have rather shot themselves in the foot by saying that the government has no role in marriage: this is exactly the point. Let people marry, love and be equal as private wedded couples, not restricted by irrelevant legal relics.
I end with a few amusing quotations:
“Same-sex couples may choose to have a civil partnership but no one has the right to redefine marriage for the rest of us” (“Coalition for Marriage” website).
“If marriage is redefined, those who believe in traditional marriage will be sidelined. People’s careers could be harmed, couples seeking to adopt or foster could be excluded, and schools would inevitably have to teach the new definition to children. If marriage is redefined once, what is to stop it being redefined to allow polygamy?” (“Coalition for Marriage” website).
“The 24 million married people in this country are not even going to be asked whether they mind marriage being redefined over their heads” (Colin Hart, Campaign Director of the Coalition for Marriage).
“We cannot allow this act of cultural and theological vandalism to happen” (Lord Carey, former Archbishop of Canterbury).
* Jargon buster:
IDAHO = International Day Against Homophobia, now often called IDAHOBIT (International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia and Transphobia).
WHO = World Health Organisation
LQBTIQ = Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans, Intersex, Queer (or Questioning).