Wednesday, 6 February 2013

Equal marriage is here...almost!

John Pugh:  "I think there is a liberal case against the Bill"
Yesterday was a great day to be a Liberal Democrat.

I expected no other outcome.  The momentum on the equal marriage debate – and other LGBT rights matters – has been firmly with progressives for years.

That said, when the vote was confirmed, my initial reaction was surprisingly emotional.  I didn’t view it as a political inevitability, but a righting of a wrong.  For too long some people have been marginalised and treated as unequal in the eyes of the law.  Yesterday our parliamentarians said “enough is enough”.

Of course, it meant having to listen to the BBC, and other media, referring to the historic vote on “gay marriage”.  It shows how little they actually understand about the heart of the matter.  It isn’t about marriage – and certainly not “redefining” it, although that has been done several times in the past.  Marriage isn’t being redefined: it remains, by nature, a joining together of two individuals, for better or for worse, to the exclusion of all others.  What’s actually happening is that marriage is being extended.  It’s a matter of fundamental human rights; of equality before the law.

I also detest the term “gay marriage” because it fails to appreciate that marriage is never gay.  Neither is it straight.  Marriage is marriage is marriage.  It is an understanding between two people.  I, being bisexual, have never been in a straight relationship.  Neither have I been in a gay relationship.  I’ve been in many bisexual relationships – whether same-sex or opposite-sex – because I bring myself into these relationships.  They’re defined by who I and my partner are as people, not by our respective genders.  The same is true of marriage.  Its quality is defined by the people entering it and their commitment and love for each other – not some outdated and legalistic demand to conformity, as if marriage is some kind of exclusive club.

Fundamentally, it is a question of how we value people.  Can we honestly claim to value human life when our law consciously diminishes a large section of it?  Can we genuinely be accepting of minority groups when legal distinctions continue to be made against them?  Last night our MPs said “no”.  It was a truly historic moment.  It wasn’t simply parliament agreeing to extend marriage, or our elected representatives telling Cardinal O’Brien and Brian Souter what to do with their bigotry (but thanks anyway).  They were effectively saying that LGBT people are whole, we are valuable members of society, we deserve to be shown not merely tolerance but acceptance.  They were saying that love expressed between same-sex couples is not inferior. MPs showed us respect, and for that I respect them.

This is only one step towards full LGBT equality.  It’s not even the end of the road for marriage equality – the Bill has to now go to the Lords which could prove interesting.  But it’s a huge step and I have no doubts that equal marriage will soon be here.

It feels so good to say that.

It’s a far cry from the poisonous political scene of only thirteen years ago, when hostility to repealing Section 28 wrought destructive havoc, particularly in Scotland.  Those who have come on this journey with me will appreciate exactly how monumental this vote is.  The path to equality has been long and arduous and there have been times when the probability of being where we are now seemed so remote.

Thanks therefore are due to the MPs of all parties who voted “aye” last night.  However, I would also like to thanks all those activists and campaigners who made this happen.  I don’t know who you all are, but I know how much you have done.  You have helped change the course of history.  You have helped to end at least one form of legal discrimination.  You contributed in no small way to last night’s outcome.

While myself and many others were celebrating last night, Prime Minister David Cameron will have a few headaches.  Only 127 (42%) Conservative MPs voted with the government.  Indeed, some members of the government didn’t, including Owen Paterson and Dominic Grieve.  This is one matter on which, unlike Europe, Cameron has refused to pander to the whims of his backbenchers  - most probably because he knows he’d picked the winning side.  Either that or he genuinely believes in equal marriage.  Whatever his motivations, it is obvious that the Conservatives remain divided on the matter and that many within the party will not take defeat easily.  As several Tory traditionalists stood up during the debate to justify continued discrimination – the worst being Roger Gale who suggested that the government may as well legalise marriage between siblings – it was glaringly evident that Cameron’s attempts at reforming his party have proved far from successful.

It was truly amazing how many of our parliamentarians don’t see LGBT rights as an essential extension of human rights.  How can anyone claim to believe in human rights if they don’t apply those same rights to the LGBT community?  How is it intellectually possible to admit that same-sex couples can adopt children but should not marry as this threatens the security of the family unit?

All the same, that was the Conservatives.  We expected (even hoped for) them to demonstrate that they remain a party of intolerant reactionaries.  We shouldn’t care if they wish to tear themselves to pieces in the aftermath of such a sensational vote.

What I was concerned about was that four Liberal Democrat MPS voted against.  I was not particularly disturbed by the number, as much as who they were and the rationale for voting the way they did.  Alan Beith and Gordon Birtwistle I fully expected.  They have their beliefs, have been clear about them and I fully respect their positions even if I disagree with them.  I also imagined that Greg Mulholland would have joined their ranks but in the circumstances I must applaud him for abstaining.

However, John Pugh and Sarah Teather came as something of a surprise.  I’ll deal with John first because he was the first to make a public statement.  Yesterday morning he wrote an open letter to his constituents, explaining that:

“I cannot claim to be an expert on all the issues of sexual morality and legislation though I strongly suspect that the values and principles we apply to our general behaviour and relationships apply in much the same way when we come to sexual behaviour.
"I want to say right at the start that I do not believe I am homophobic and am comfortable with Civil Partnerships legislation and the protection that offers to those in long-standing gay relationships. I have polled many of you by e-mail and the most widespread view in my constituency is support for civil partnerships but not for gay marriage [that term again!].
 "I thought at the start that as I struggled over this issue, I would arrive at a position that would antagonise either my church which is solidly (though not exclusively) AGAINST or my party which is solidly (though not exclusively) FOR.
 "As I put my own ideas in order I realise that I stand a fair chance of antagonising BOTH my church and my party.
 "It remains to be seen which is the most forgiving/understanding.
 "I will vote against the Bill - against Gay Marriage but not necessarily for all the reasons the churches give but because I think there is a good liberal case against the current legislation.
 "I was surprised in agonising over this how little I relied on any distinctively religious beliefs to arrive at my conclusion. I think there is a liberal case against the Bill and though it may start from a different point than church or religious teaching, it seems to arrive on the same page and embody similar insights.
"My fundamental objection (see below) against the government's proposal is that it achieves none of its objectives and weakens the link between marriage and the family.
"As a result it draws government (the state) into a whole, new series of debatable judgements and rulings on sexual, personal and religious behaviour.
"Far from being permissive in effect, it could herald the advent of ever more arbitrary prescription as we forget why the state legislates at all in this deeply personal aspect of life.”

It was a strange statement, particularly in the claim that the Bill would weaken the link between marriage and family.  Clearly his understanding of marriage and family is not the same as mine.  I also, having read (most) of the Bill, disagree that it invites the government into making judgement on sexual behaviour (certainly no more than current legislation) or that it is by nature prescriptive.  It is a Bill that affords same-sex couples who want to be married, and those who wish to celebrate those unions, the freedom to do so.  I see nothing illiberal in that.

While that contribution was frustrating, I was more disappointed by Sarah Teather who chose to make a statement ten minutes after the vote and who previously had given every indication of being supportive.  The former minister revealed that:

“This evening I voted against the second reading of the same-sex marriage bill. It was one of the most difficult decisions I have ever taken. As a life-long liberal and a committed Catholic I spent many months reflecting on this issue in the lead up to the vote. I wanted to explain to people why I took this step.
"Changing the definition of marriage for me raises other more complex issues.  I believe that the link between family life and marriage is important. We know that permanent stable loving relationships between parents are very important for children...I recognise that this kind of stability can exist outside of marriage, but the act of giving and receiving vows in front of others and making a commitment for life is an aid to stability. It is precisely the reason that marriage has formed the basis of family life for thousands of years, and is the reason that the state has historically tried to encourage it.
"I also recognise that not all couples who get married have children for a variety of reasons, and similarly that many children are now born outside of marriage. My concern, however, is that by moving to a definition of marriage that no longer requires sexual difference, we will, over time, ultimately decouple the definition of marriage from family life altogether. I doubt that this change will be immediate. It will be gradual, as perceptions of what marriage is and is for shift. But we can already see the foundations for this shift in the debate about same-sex marriage. Those who argue for a change in the law do so by saying that surely marriage is just about love between two people and so is of nobody else's business. Once the concept of marriage has become established in social consciousness as an entirely private matter about love and commitment alone, without any link to family, I fear that it will accelerate changes already occurring that makes family life more unstable. (I should add, that I also suspect it will make marriage ultimately seem irrelevant. After all, how long before gay people begin to say, as many straight couples of my own generation have begun to say, "if marriage is just about love, why would I need a piece of paper to prove it?")
"The argument in favour of same-sex marriage has mostly centred on rights. But this isn't the only liberal philosophical perspective on the legislation. The more I considered this bill the more I was unsure about the state's role. If an important reason for marriage is that it is a space for having and raising children, I can see the relevance for the state being involved in regulating it and encouraging stability for the good of society and for children's welfare. Similarly, if there is a need for protection of rights to property and rights to make decisions, there are good reasons for the state to provide regulation. But neither of these things is what this legislation is trying to do. In this case, the state is regulating love and commitment alone, between consenting adults, without purpose to anything else. That feels curious to me, as I would normally consider that very much a private matter.”

There is so much in there I find objectionable.  In honesty, I am amazed that Sarah wrote this.  I’m even more amazed that she thought it.  Even more concerning is that she waited until after the vote to justify herself, rather than be open with her party and constituents.  Her defence is essentially convoluted waffle, reinforcing the myth that marriage is being redefined and that in some way concern for the family is at the heart of her objections.

Both John Pugh and Sarah Teather referred to their religious faith, as if that in some way justified the stance.  While I respect that it can be difficult to separate religious faith from a secular position, and accept that belief makes an inevitable contribution to our worldviews, I struggle with those who object on the basis of their inflexible "Christianity".  It is too glib and simplistic, not to mention intellectually lazy.  It is not Christian to withhold rights from minorities and I for one want to reclaim my faith from such fundamentalism.

People’s religious beliefs drive them. Imposing them onto others, however, is hardly in the spirit of what a secular position demands. MPs are, ultimately, representatives, not preachers. They are there to serve.  Ultimately the objections were largely academic (barring potential electoral ramifications) and I would defend the right to freedom of speech, but what if the margin had been narrower?  Would the withholding of freedom from a large section of society be a fair price to pay to ensure MPs' freedom of speech and conscience?  Would that be liberal?

So, strangely, the euphoria was transformed temporarily into disappointment.  The most disappointing thing wasn’t the way some of our MPs voted, but their disingenuous rationale and the pseudo-intellectual objections, behind which lies a more fundamental unease with LGBT equality.

However, we should not allow such things it dominate our thinking.  A major victory for equality has been won.  So much has been said in the last twenty-four hours, and I’ll finish by restating my delight at the outcome and my hope for a future in which the notion of making distinctions based on sexual orientation is so absurd to be laughable.  Here's to a an inclusive, tolerant and liberal society!

I leave the final word (unusually) to Nick Clegg:
“I genuinely believe that we will look back on today as a landmark for equality in Britain...No matter who you are and who you love, we are all equal. “
Amen, brother.


Dean said...

A very good posting!

I rather enjoyed the letter Teather's constituency voter 'Natalie' wrote to her asking her to explain her reasoning.

I posted it on my blog, but it excellently illustrates the lack of logic behind her stance.

I too welcome the vote, and it should be called 'equal marriage', because that is what it is. Your correct on that too

Lovely little blog, never seen it before now :)

Andrew said...

Just had a look at your blog and read Natalie's letter.

Needles to say I agree. I share the feelings of disappointment - largely because that kind of statement from Sarah was so unexpected.

Also, thanks for the compliment on the blog!