On Friday, for the first time, rainbow flags, the colours of the gay community, flew over two government buildings in London in what the deputy prime minister, Nick Clegg, called “a small symbol to celebrate a massive achievement”. Just after midnight, in London’s Camden Town Hall, Sean Adl-Tabatabai and Sinclair Treadway were among the first same-sex couples to be pronounced “husband and husband”.
Regardless of personal views on the paraphernalia of orange blossom and nuptials, the Marriage (Same-Sex Couples) Act now in law in England and Wales – with Scotland following in the autumn – marks a striking and remarkably rapid change in social attitudes on the question of equality. Polls show two-thirds of people back same-sex unions. Yet little more than a decade ago, England still had a law on the books banning the “promotion” of homosexuality.
“What has amazed me is how much of Britain, how quickly, has moved forward backing us on this,” former Conservative MP Matthew Parris told Sky News on Friday. Adl-Tabatabai told a reporter that the introduction of civil partnerships in 2005 had helped to overcome opposition to gay marriage. “Perceptions of gay people and what their lifestyles are like are … changing,” he said. “They are like, ‘OK, I hate to say it, but maybe you’re like us.'”
That profound shift in attitudes is strikingly embodied in the prime minister, David Cameron, at a cost to support in his own party. Writing inPinkNews, he rightly said that this is “an important moment for our country” in keeping with Britain’s “proud traditions of respect, tolerance and equal worth”. He added: “Put simply, in Britain it will no longer matter whether you are straight or gay – the state will recognise your relationship as equal.”
Yet, in 2000, David Cameron, still to join the House of Commons, had repeatedly attacked the Labour government’s plans to repeal Section 28 of the Local Government Act 1988. Among its measures, it forbade “the teaching… of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship”. Cameron accused the then prime minister, Tony Blair, of being “anti-family”. Nine years later, Cameron as leader of the Tory party, and dedicated moderniser, apologised for his party’s introduction of the law and said it had been offensive to gay people.
While Cameron has changed his mind, others have not. Opposition comes from some feminist lesbians who have no desire to join an institution that remains, in their eyes, patriarchal. While other members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender communities say same-sex marriage is a threat. They have no wish to be assimilated into heterosexual society via a wedding ring, erasing the right to be different. Edward White’s autobiographical novel, The Beautiful Room is Empty, set in the 1950s and 1960s, describes a time when homophobia was supported by laws that criminalised homosexuality, pathologised it as a disease and a neurosis. White describes how the self-identified transgressives in society, bohemians, leftwing radicals and closet gays, saw themselves as outsiders, politically opposed to a society they despised. That opposition is healthy in a democracy.
Inevitably, also in the anti-gay marriage campaign are traditionalists in favour of “natural” marriage. They argue, along with the Catholic church and the Church of England, that the Bible refers to marriage as the union of man and woman for the purposes of procreation. Clergy in the Church of England are prohibited from marrying same-sex partners. Faith and equality have yet to cohabit successfully in the established church. On Friday, the bishop of Buckingham, Alan Wilson, lambasted his superiors for hypocrisy. “There are partnered gay bishops telling their partnered gay clergy you shouldn’t marry your partner, Fred,” he said. Colin Coward, of Changing Attitude, a liberal pressure group in the church, is optimistic of movement. “I am already fielding inquiries from people who want to know if they can get married in their local church… the Church of England will be forced to face up to that reality.”
A single lifetime illustrates how rapidly that “reality” has been reconfigured. Professor Jeffrey Weeks, author of The World We Have Won, is a sociologist, gay activist and historian of our changing attitudes to sexuality. Now 68, and in a civil partnership, he believes the astonishing speed with which same-sex marriage has been achieved, with cross-party support, is due to a series of events stretching back to the 1960s and the rise of gay militancy. These include the fight lesbian couples waged to keep their children post-divorce when judges were inclined to give custody to ex-husbands not allegedly tainted by deviancy; the battle for gay couples to adopt and the lack of rights, in the early 80s, that many gay men and women faced when partners died. Elton John, husband David Furnish and their two sons seem a century away from the furore in 1983 that greeted the children’s book, Jenny Lives With Eric and Martin. Coming out, Professor Weeks says, has moved from extraordinary to ordinary; everybody knows somebody who is gay.
What has also propelled change is the profound alteration to what is defined as conformity in heterosexual society. The ties of commitment have loosened and the manacles of respectability removed. Statistics published last week by the Office for National Statistics tell us that matrimony has long been falling out of favour with heterosexuals. Nevertheless, for the gay community, as activist Peter Tatchell has argued, marriage is a human right; it permits gay people publicly to take on the rights and responsibilities that contribute to civic society.
This does not mean that prejudice has been vanquished. Individuals in some parts of the UK, and in strictly religious communities, as with those suffering fresh persecution in Russia and Africa and elsewhere, continue to face fear, discrimination and violence. In Britain, however, inclusion is the template to which society is working. As Mr Cameron observed on Friday, marriage – commitment of any kind – takes work. “It requires patience and understanding,” he said. “Give and take – but what it gives back in terms of love, support, stability and happiness is immeasurable.”
That is why for all those who are marrying and hoping for a happy ever after, it is right to offer congratulations and wish them a life together of much joy.
See also: http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/comment/the-church-has-lost-its-way-on-the-road-to-gay-marriage-9223543.html
This ‘Observer’ editorial in the U.K. gives an overall response to the weekend celebration of Equal Marriage in England and Wales, the legal enablement for Same-Sex monogamous partnerships to be raised, in common with heterosexual partnerships, to the dignity of Civil Marriage.
Despite earlier reluctance on the part of the general public to any change in the status of marriage that might include same-sex partners, it has become abundantly obvious that this prejudice has been largely overcome – by the U.K. government’s willingness to listen to the arguments, pro and con, relating to the need to accommodate this latest support for the process that allows to people of the same gender to make the commitment of their fidelity and monogamous relationship, thus contributing to the stability of society at large.
The attitude of the hierarchy of the Church of England is, officially, somewhat different. In his reference recently to the situation, the Archbishop of Canterbury has admitted that, although the Church has made statements of opposition to homophobia, the House of Bishops has, as yet, found itself unable to totally accept the need to provide for Same-Sex Marriage in the services of the Church. This, despite the fact that, now that civil Marriage for same-sex persons is a reality, the Church is having further thoughts about the possibility of accepting Same-Sex Civil Partnerships – but without any official Blessing in church. Yes, there may be a discreet prayer offered for a same-sex couple, but not in any official church service. This hypocritical stance is being acknowledged by members of the LGBTI community for what it is – a colossal fudge, in a situation that needs resolution soon.
Father Ron Smith, Christchurch, New Zealand