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Comment: How our island came to support equal marriage

Sheree Bell April 20, 2012
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Last night, in a small council chamber, on the edge of the land, history was made.

In a full council meeting, to a packed public gallery, Thanet District Councillors decided that they would make a formal response to the Public Consultation on Equal Civil Marriage and that their response would be favourable.

Thanet is technically an island, situated in the farthest corner of east Kent and comprises three towns – Margate, Broadstairs and Ramsgate – along with small villages. The power within the council is held between Labour, Conservatives and a small number of Independents. It was two of these independents that laid the foundation that changed the course of Thanet’s history last night.

A few weeks ago Cllrs Ian Driver and John Worrow put forward a motion that Thanet District Council should debate its response to the Equal Marriage consultation and vote to send that response to central government.

Immediately this news went out, two things happened: Eager to promote Thanet as a progressive society with a governing body that showed commitment to civil rights and equality, local community activists began mobilising support across the island. In opposition to this, Conservative councillors and their peers began an internet campaign that reviled not only the two independent Councillors but also others associated with them.

All this activity was fuelled by a local press article written by Conservative MP Sir Roger Gale in which he referred to supporters of Equal Marriage as ‘militant homosexuals’ inflaming not only the LGBT community of Thanet and beyond but also its many heterosexual allies.

Following a public meeting, attended by a wide range of locals and (mostly Labour) Councillors, and where attendees heard a passionate address from a young lesbian Conservative voter who was aghast at Gales’ public outburst, community activists began to mobilise activity. The community were asked to send messages to their local Councillors, Facebook was alive with discussion and interest raised in both local and national press.

So on Thursday 19 April 2012, when Thanet District Councillors arrived at their meeting they found a welcome from the pro-Equal Marriage lobby outside the building.

Inside, a full public gallery scrutinised their words. At first, the Conservative cohort attempted to block the debate but the figures didn’t stack up and they were outvoted. The ensuing debate saw Labour Councillors speaking passionately about LGBT discrimination, loving relationships, equality and the law.

The Conservatives spoke of marriage being for procreation and of morality not being a matter for local government. One Councillor asserted that she would not vote because she hadn’t consulted with all of her constituents.

After hearing the arguments for and against, Thanet Council voted in favour of the motion set by Cllr Driver, sending a positive response to the public consultation and a positive message to the community at large that Thanet is under a progressive administration where the rights of all of its residents are valued equally.

It is hoped that other Local Authorities will follow this lead and Thanet will have set itself as a trailblazer.

As one of the community activists involved, I am proud to have played my part in this small but powerful piece of social history and glad to have made another positive contribution to the furtherance of civil rights.

More: England, equal marriage, gay marriage, Kent, marriage, marriage equality, Opinion

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