In an exclusive interview with PinkNews.co.uk, Steve Reed, Labour’s newly elected MP for Croydon North and Patron of LGBT Labour, says Gordon Brown’s failure to support marriage equality as prime minister and Labour Party leader is a source of regret.
Before the previous general election in 2010 Gordon Brown told PinkNews that he would not support same-sex marriage. Writing in a readers’ question and answer feature, he said: “At the moment there’s a distinction drawn between civil and religious unions, and when civil partnerships were being introduced they took the same form as a civil union which a heterosexual couple would have. We later made it illegal to discriminate on partnership status – so it is illegal to treat someone in a civil partnership different to a married person.”
Asked by PinkNews to comment on Mr Brown’s decision, Steve Reed said: “I think it’s a shame and I think it’s wrong.”
Ahead of this month’s second reading of the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill, Gordon Brown confirmed on his website that he supported plans to allow gay couples to marry, however, a pre-arranged trip to the US in his capacity as UN Special Envoy for Global Education meant he was not present for the vote itself on 5 February.
Steve Reed was elected MP for Croydon North in a by-election in November 2012, making him the newest of the MPs that voted on this month’s bill: “I’m the newest MP, called the Baby of the House. It’s a long time since I’ve been the baby of anything.”
He said to PinkNews that even without a long career in the House of Commons, it was easy to see that the vote was important from the atmosphere in Parliament:
“It genuinely felt like a historic moment,” he to PinkNews. “The galleries were packed. We’d all been inundated with letters from people for and against equal marriage.”
“25 years ago, roughly, the Thatcher government passed Section 28 and I was marching against that outside here [the Houses of Parliament].
“It felt quite emotional to make that mental journey from outside, protesting against what a previous government had done in the chamber of the House of Commons, to actually being in there to vote for one of the largest elements of equality legislation that makes LGBT people fully equal. It felt very very emotional, if I’m honest. It was remarkable.”
Many of the legal steps between the repeal of Section 28, a notorious piece of anti-gay legislation which banned the ‘promotion’ of homosexuality in schools, and the equal marriage bill were made by Labour. The party was responsible for introducing civil partnerships, adoption rights for same-sex couples, equalisation of the age of consent, and the legal recognition of gender identity for trans people, among other legislation.
However, Labour failed to introduce equal marriage during its 13 years in office. In response, Mr Reed said to PinkNews: “There’s a whole raft of things that Labour have done, and although this measure was proposed by a Conservative-Lib Dem Coalition it was Labour votes that got it through on the day because more Tories voted against it than for it. So it was good to see that it was more or less cross-party, but there was still a lot of Tories that were against it.”
He added: “Really this is an issue that should not be party political in my view, it should just be ‘you’re either equal or you’re not’. People should be equal in a modern, democratic society.”
Despite the positive outcome of the vote, which passed 400 to 175, Mr Reed cautioned that opposition to equality was still clamouring to be heard.
He said to PinkNews: “There will still plenty of voices, coming from the other side of the Chamber in particular, which sounded like they came from a different age,” he said. “It is a bit shocking to hear some of those views being expressed – I guess not so shocking to hear them expressed, it’s shocking to have people hold views like that. It just feels like it’s out of the ark and has no place in modern Britain and is so out of tune with the way the vast majority of British people feel about gay people and about the issue of equality.
“But I think the way the country has moved over the last two decades has been remarkable. I never would have dreamt 25 years ago, marching here against a piece of legislation that said in law for the first time that gay relationships were pretend, that had no need to say that. It was straight down the line offensive. To move from that to full equality within 25 years – a single generation – is a remarkable journey to go on.”
Mr Reed said to PinkNews that he believed that progress in law would continue, and the shocking views still held by some MPs would progress with it.
“If you think around the controversy there was about the introduction of civil partnerships less than ten years ago, even the Tories who were speaking against equal marriage in the debate were all acknowledging that civil partnerships were fine. Ten years ago they weren’t. They were making the same objections then to civil partnerships that they make now to equal marriage. Listening to them you’d think the world is going to fall in, all heterosexual marriage are going to suddenly come to an end. None of that happened with civil partnerships, none of that is going to happen with equal marriage either.
“To be honest, their views are going to be extinct like the dinosaurs very soon.”
Mr Reed said to PinkNews it was interesting that he hadn’t been singled out as a gay MP by campaigners – but he still received a flood of anti-equal marriage postcards. The Catholic Church had handed out a million of the cards in the weeks before the vote, asking churchgoers to fill them in and send them to MPs.
“I had about 300 of those, which is a lot. I wrote back to all of them and I explained that I’d be voting for equal marriage, and why. And given that they were writing to me from a Christian perspective I sent them back a copy of an article written by the Reverend Steve Chalke, who is one of the country’s leading evangelical Christian leaders who broke ranks with many leading Christians and supported equal marriage. He wrote an amazing article in a magazine called ‘The Christian’ in which he justified that in the grounds of the Bible and Christianity. I thought, if these people are hearing only one side of the debate from a Christian perspective let’s give them the other side of the debate as well.
“I’ve not had anyone write back about that which I’m a bit disappointed in,” he said to PinkNews.
Mr Reed added that his sexuality had been a “non-issue” during his by-election in November. He noted that this was a remarkable indication of the progress made in recent decades, especially compared to a 1983 by-election in which the then closeted bisexual Lib Dem Simon Hughes faced Labour’s openly gay Peter Tatchell, campaigning against him as “the straight choice”.
He said to PinkNews: “It’s not that long ago where being out and gay would have been a bar to being selected by your own party to be a candidate, or then being elected. In the by-election that Simon Hughes fought in 1983 that he did not feel able to be out about his own sexuality in that by-election and was heavily criticised for running an allegedly homophobic campaign against Peter Tatchell who was his Labour opponent, who was out as gay.
“Now what a long way we’ve come when today I was able to fight and win a by-election in a very multi-ethnic part of South London, and my sexuality was pretty much not an issue.”
“The UKIP candidate tried to make it an issue,” Mr Reed said to PinkNews, referring to Winston Mckenzie’s campaign claims that gay people shouldn’t be allowed to adopt children.
“He didn’t target me personally but he did raise the issue of equal marriage and of gay and lesbian adoption. Both of those he attacked in really quite intemperate terms, but was slapped down on all sides. It didn’t get any traction with the electorate.
“There were three elections that took place… the other two were in Rotherham and Middlesbrough, and in both of those seats, where the candidates were not gay, UKIP came second. In Croydon North the Conservatives were second and UKIP came a very miserable third, so it just didn’t work. I think that says a lot about how far we’ve come with equality.
“That’s not to say that I think equality is yet won. While there are still young people who are frightened to come out to their parents or acknowledge who they are or students in schools who are being bullied because of their sexuality or what they think their sexuality may be, or while there are people being the victims of violent homophobic attacks, equality is not yet won.
“Equal marriage, that was only the second reading of the bill, there’s still the committee stage, the House of Lords, then it comes back to the House of Commons so we still need to make sure it clears all of those remaining hurdles before it becomes law. But on issues like homophobic bullying, hate crime, hate violence, in ensuring that adoption is available to couples of every type, wherever they live – at the moment there’s a bit of a postcode lottery around that because some councils don’t appear to support same-sex couples adopting, other councils do. There’s still hurdles to get over and battles to be won but we really have come a long way and i would never detract from anything that we’ve already achieved.”