The fighting has been fierce, marked by the intolerance of the tolerant: gaybasher-bashing, homophobe-phobia. Bigotry towards bigots: progress of a sort.
Tuesday, February 5, was an historic moment in the decades-long move to (full) acceptance of homosexuality in the UK. The equal marriage bill, conferring on homosexuals the right to get married (rather than civil partner-ed), passed its second reading in the House of Commons with 400 votes in favour and 225 against. The House of Lords is yet to come, but that’s a battle for another day.
I’m something of a political nihilist, sniping and sneering at the shibboleths of left and right alike. I instinctively distrust most politicians, especially the type of leader who seeks to rule through sheer force of personality, whether Winston Churchill or Tony Blair. I think that political ideals are and should be subordinate to people, always.
Nevertheless I do believe in many things: I believe the rehabilitation of offenders is more important than the pound of flesh and that Einstein was right when he said that insanity was doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. I believe in Harvey Dent…
I believe in a woman’s right to choose, and that divorce proceedings should be (pardon the expression) divorced from the standard adversarial legal system. I believe in the right of the religious to pursue their own beliefs without scorn.
I believe that a moral dilemma is, by definition, a choice between two wrongs and that in real life right vs wrong situations are vanishingly rare, I believe that the gay marriage question is one such situation; I believe in gay marriage.
Most things are arguable and most things are complex: there are many, many more perspectives than the two sides to every story mantra we learn as children. Is it lonely up here on my high horse? Sometimes, but I have my sense of smug self-satisfaction to keep me company.
Tony Blair was a genius in this regard: his party introduced civil partnerships at a time before the issue had come to dominate the mainstream. It gave homosexuals equal rights in law; it allowed gays to say “we’re married” and it allowed certain others to say “oh-ho, no you’re not.” Civil partnership was never intended to be anything other than a short-term compromise on a divisive issue.
And it is a divisive issue, with strong, largely instinctive, feelings on both sides – yes of course they should, it’s obvious? Or conversely: no they shouldn’t.
My first reaction was in favour, and as with most such ill-defined feelings I’ve had to come up with reasons after the fact, as is the case with most people. That is, I’ve become more firmly dug in to my initial position. This inherently makes discourse fruitless – I make my points, you make yours and if we started in agreement we’ll probably end in agreement, and if we disagreed at the outset, well I won’t hold my breath if you don’t hold yours.
But it’s only human to try and win a few skirmishes in the battle for hearts and minds.
The concept of marriage is fluid – a contract of ownership, or a means of cementing alliances. No-fault divorce is accepted now, where once any sort of divorce was frowned upon. Love may be the dominant reason for getting married, but that’s a relatively modern phenomenon; marriages arranged by the parents are now relatively infrequent.
The legal aspects of marriage are the sole province of the state, but marriage is more than forms and property rights. Marriage cuts across religions – it no more belongs to Christians than to Sikhs or Jews, it is not Islamic, or Hindu. In fact there’s no basic requirement to be religious at all to get married. Or to want children – it’s certainly not about procreation in a time when a bastard is someone who cheats you, not someone born out of wedlock.
Little Englanders may wish to look away now, but the UK has always been an immigrant isle: Celts, Romans, Saxons, Norse, Normans – none are indigenous. If anything this accelerated during the days of empire and commonwealth.
Such diversity of ethnicity and belief can serve to mask the fact that people are more similar than they are different. And while there are bound to be differences between gay relationships and straight ones only a fool would suggest that homosexuals are incapable of feeling love in as profound and overwhelming and deep a sense as heterosexuals.
In any society it is necessary to balance rights and the beliefs of disparate groups which are often in direct conflict with one another. The right of some to be offended doesn’t trump the right of others to give their relationships the proper name.
The question then is whether there is a positive need for change. That is to say: homosexuals have the same rights in law. There are fundamental differences between their relationships and the traditional concept of marriage (ie the absence of one type of genitalia and the abundance of the other). So long as they’re not discriminated against (ie denied rights) that’s enough.
Equality of rights is one thing, but we live beyond the chilly confines of the law. Words have more power and come with more baggage than we sometimes give them credit for. A rose by any other name might smell as sweet, but in a world of roses a ‘romance-signifying flower’ sticks out like a sore green thumb. Or, to reference South Park in place of Shakespeare, “it’ll be just like being married only instead of being married you’ll be butt-buddies. Buuuttt. Buuuddddiess.”
To deny homosexuals the right to the word marriage is to imply that their emotions, their relationships are fundamentally different. In such denial comes the unavoidable implication that their relationships are somehow inferior, not worthy of ‘marriage’ with all that the word signifies. Or at least their relationships should be excluded, even if they’re the same but different to make a prejudicial historical analogy. This in turn demeans us all.
I’m not married, but I’m forever amazed (and heartened) at the commitment and certainty it takes for two people to get married. I’m also sure that it’s an easy commitment to make once you’ve found the right person. Weddings are lovely occasions brimming with joy and optimism. I’m not gay, but I fail to see how there could be any real difference: we have little if any control over who we’re attracted to or who we fall in love with. One kind of love is not more tangible or genuine than another.
As I see it then, the issue is one of discrimination against one group of people for a frankly arbitrary characteristic. Moreover, even the anti-gay marriage brigade is keen to stress its lack of homophobia, hiding instead behind straw men clad in the language of tradition and tolerance.
The Conservative rebels are even citing the European Convention on Human Rights (“ECHR”), saying that ECHR will be used to bully religions into submission. Given the rabid Tory antagonism to ECHR this would be laughable if it weren’t so disingenuous.
There is currently no human right to same sex marriage to be found within ECHR – the Strasbourg court has ruled on this before (in reference to article 12 and the right to marriage between a man and a woman) and the court is not minded to change. But there is a right to freedom of religion (article 9). Article 8 (respect for private and family life) may pose an attractive proposition for the litigious, but it’ll be a tenuous case at best. And again, Strasbourg’s jurisdiction is the interpretation and application of ECHR – whether the state and its institutions are acting in conflict with your convention rights.
Further, the Anglican Church denies women the right to hold senior positions within its organisation with impunity; the Roman Catholic Church denies priests the right to marry. Neither has been subjected to a successful lawsuit and rightly so in my opinion – religions may hold baffling beliefs to outsiders, but they are nevertheless genuinely held. Religions should simply be prevented from imposing those beliefs on non-believers. This is true of any social group.
But as they say, it’s not homosexuality per se that’s the problem. If so, then it’s hard to work out what the issue really is – public mood is broadly in favour, the wedding industry is definitely in favour, fear of the erosion of religious rights appears unfounded or at least grossly exaggerated. The equal marriage bill in fact explicitly protects the rights of the Church.
In the absence of a clearly defined reason to deny same sex marriage, the conclusion is surely clear. On Tuesday, reason and decency won out.
A victory for the prime minister and a defeat for his party. They’ve promised to carry on fighting to the House of Lords and beyond despite the damage they’re inflicting on their own reputations and their own party, despite the fact that they’re at odds with the public they claim to represent. They’ll carry on despite the nonsense of a position which purports not to have a problem with gays but nevertheless seeks to deny them rights for the fact of their homosexuality.
They’d be well advised to stop with all the carry-on; enough of this gay banter.