Newly elected Liberal Democrat MP Stephen Gilbert speaks out in support of LGBT marriage equality and explains why LGBT rights organisations should be fighting for marriage equality now.
Since the Civil Partnership Act of 2004, a lot has happened in the UK and in the world. More and more countries have opened up marriage to same-sex couples. The original two, the Netherlands and Belgium, have now been joined by eight more countries offering full marriage to gay couples. Other places are following, most notably the United States, where there are plans to legislate for it. Yet the UK still lags behind. That’s despite the fact that we want to act as a champion for gay rights across the world. This is unacceptable and that’s why the Liberal Democrats will be debating a motion at our Party Conference calling for a gender-neutral, equal marriage act.
Don’t get me wrong, civil partnerships were an excellent and much needed step, but they’re just not quite good enough. First, gay couples do not want to be ‘separate but equal’ – as surveys by the Equality Network and PinkNews.co.uk have underlined. And why should there be such a separation? Lib Dem Leader Nick Clegg put it well: “Love is the same, straight or gay, so the civil institution should be the same”. As a Liberal, I believe that the state doesn’t have an interest in enforcing private moral or religious beliefs unless there is a clear accompanying secular purpose In this case, there isn’t.
As a society we have set a standard for people who want to show they are in a committed relationship, for people who want to show that they have found love and wish to remain together until death do them part. We call it marriage. Why should we deny that institution to people who wish to show that commitment to their family, friends and everybody else? In fact, our society’s denial of access to marriage to same-sex couples implicitly says that we deem their relationships as, in some, way inferior. We can’t have LGBT equality as long as one of the most important institutions in our society remains a closed shop.
Of course, the Lib Dem commitment to LGBT rights goes much further than that. Our Federal Constitution enshrines our belief in the fundamental values of liberty, equality and community and our desire to build and safeguard a fair, free and open society. We were the first political party to commit to a gay rights policy in 1975 and we opposed Section 28 from the start. We campaigned for an equal age of consent and Lib Dem peer Lord Lester was the first to introduce a Civil Partnership Bill in 2002, with the support of Stonewall.
Yet we are very much aware that despite the many positive and fundamental changes over the past few years, homophobia is still rife in our playgrounds, workplaces and even in the home. That’s why we can’t stop now. It’s an individual’s right to live their lives as they see fit, without discrimination, with personal privacy, with equal rights in front of the law.
The fight for LGBT rights doesn’t stop with the motion on equal marriage. Our society needs robust action on a variety of issues: for example, children must be free from homophobic bullying in all schools, hate crimes are on the rise and must be tackled with the victims given proper support and we need to tackle homophobia in the workplace. I hope to build on the excellent work many community groups and organisations are doing, working together with them to keep the government focused on these issues and to hold them to account if necessary. People deserve nothing less.