Benjamin Butterworth reflects on recent changes to the law in England and Wales to allow same-sex couples to legally marry, but questions whether the gay community should be thankful for the changes?
Last week was historic. 46 years after homosexuality itself was legalised, marriage between same-sex couples has been too. It looks like it will be another six or so months before same-sex couples start trotting down the aisle; making the struggle for gay rights the best part of six decades long. Not exactly “bulldozed through”, when you think of it like that. Even Mr Gay Marriage-Referendum, Peter Bone, is barely older than the struggle for equal rights that commenced with legalisation.
But what is it we’re really saying thank you for?
The most blessed, conservative, long-standing institution our society affords has extend its franchise to same-sex couples. For those of us it affects, the change feels bold and liberating. The extension of such an institution cannot be under-estimated; Parliament, and the public at large, have finally and explicitly given their affirmation to gay people as being equal.
But whilst that feels powerful right now, it also leaves me mightily uncomfortable. The lingering reminder of where the power lies; of whose affirmation it is still perceived we need.
Ireland recently took a lesson from the Peter Bone book of How To Lose Friends and Alienate People, and announced a same-sex marriage referendum. The LGBT people of Ireland will now face a slog many months long, as they are forced, cap-in-hand, to request of the heterosexual masses permission to share their rights. It’s the politics of master and slave. People the change in law won’t affect determining the rights of those it does.
Energy and Climate Change Secretary, Ed Davey, couldn’t have been more right when he said of the abolition of Section 28: “In a liberal democracy, the need to protect minorities properly sometimes means that protection cannot be achieved through the ballot box, and that some things are not appropriate for a vote.”
There is a prevailing wisdom that we must be grateful for living in a “liberal country”. That the affordance of legal protection – the right to be in the army, adopt, and now to get wed – is something we should recognise as privilege. “It makes you feel lucky to be British”, one friend said to me at London’s Pride weekend. But why? Last week’s change is not a privilege. It is not a granted set of extra special rights – that’s the language of the bigots who would rather we didn’t have any.
What changed last week is that we, gay people, got what was always rightfully ours. We must not feel an endless sense of indebtedness to those who granted us it. Marriage has always been our right – it just took a while for that to be recognised.
When homosexuality was first legalised, one supportive peer told The Times: “I ask those [homosexuals] to show their thanks by comporting themselves quietly and with dignity… any form of ostentatious behaviour now or in the future or any form of public flaunting would be utterly distasteful”.
That view hasn’t gone. The idea homosexuality is questionable, that it is in some way an abnormality requiring of specific advocation remains. This may be less true in metropolitan areas where the visibility of gay people is higher, but in much of the country it lingers.
When starting a new job recently, one colleague enquired as to whether I am gay. I confirmed that I am, to which she replied: “That’s fine, I mean I’m fine with that. I think it should be allowed and stuff.”
Am I the only gay person to feel a profound sense of incredulity at such responses?
The same responses came at a recent family wedding. Relationship status was a talking point, being a wedding, and so came the parade of “It should be allowed” comments. As though accepting some people are gay is a sign of liberalism.
What is the response meant to be? “Well, er, gosh, thank you. I’m so relieved you’re OK with it… Sorry, what was your name again?”
That’s why I won’t say “thank you” for marriage. Say thank you to the supportive politicians, the campaigners, the newspapers; all the people – gay and straight – who chose to use their time and efforts to rectify the historic injustice. They put themselves out to make a change for the better, and the bigotry they had to overcome cannot be under-estimated. But not for the rights themselves.
We are no longer legally “separate but equal”, and now we need to not experience the same situation culturally. That is the challenge that needs to be overcome now; for tolerance to be indicative not of some sort of liberalism, but basic civility. That doesn’t involve endless thanks for simply being equal.
As with all comment pieces the views expressed do not necessary reflect those of PinkNews.co.uk
Benjamin writes regularly for GT (Gay Times) magazine and tweets at @benjaminbutter.