Phillip Hammond has complained about the amount of time spent debating gay marriage.
There’s an irony here. Historically same-sex attraction was the love that dare not speak its name. And now everybody is talking about it.
Next week the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill will have its report stage and third reading. For those who support it, not least those of us who are lesbian or gay, it’s about equality.
The democratic case is clear. All the stuff about manifestos and referendums is filibustering. There may be a huge petition opposed to it. But the evidence is that public attitudes have changed, including amongst people with religious beliefs; so the state needs to catch up. Some people will be unhappy but that’s life. Nobody’s rights will be infringed. And there must indeed be other things to talk about. Back in the day when it was hard getting people to take lesbian and gay rights seriously I never imagined saying less would be more.
‘Redefinition of marriage’
For most of those who oppose the legislation the issue appears to be the ‘redefinition’ of marriage. Their objections, often though not always linked to religious beliefs, may be sincerely held. But the result, whether intended or not, is discriminatory. For them marriage is for men and women and its purpose is procreation. Civil partnerships gave lesbians and gay men equality and now they want more. How shocking. The reality is that many of these people didn’t want civil partnerships either, but that’s glossed over now.
In fact there’s another group who oppose gay marriage, or who at any rate are sceptics. Many of them were part of the women’s and gay liberation movements. For them marriage is an archaic and oppressive institution. ‘Wedding hells’ according to the feminist Julie Bindel is something the gay rights movement should run a mile from.
The two arguments are unintentionally closer than it might appear. The fact is that the current Bill will redefine marriage. It may not result in liberation, but it will bring about a fundamental change. That’s the point. But the change is about extending rights not taking them away. If you’re straight and married, you’ll remain married and your marriage will be no less legitimate, no less meaningful. And whatever your sexuality you’ll have a choice.
A public declaration of love
I hope that choice will extend to straight couples having the option of civil partnership. And in time I’d like to see the choice extend to religious marriage, but I think that should be a matter for individual religious denominations. I’m pretty sceptical about the law protecting so-called religious freedoms in this area. As a gay Catholic I’m happy to argue away within the church without the state getting involved. I don’t think it should be any different for Anglicans; but because we have an established church it is. However if the Bill is passed it will be a big step in the right direction. Enough government time will have been spent and religious institutions can carry on talking.
History shows us change is messy. It’s often out of contradiction that lasting progressive change is forged. The blogosphere has revealed some of that contradiction. For the feminist Beatrix Campbell, the line between civil partnership and marriage has already been broken in popular culture – marriage isn’t about procreation, it’s about love. For Matthew D’Ancona, the case for gay marriage is fundamentally conservative – it will strengthen Britain’s social fabric.
I suspect the reality is that for many people both arguments will have some resonance. They simply want to marry, with or without God, and having a wedding – a public declaration of personal love – is a symbol of the ties that bind them and us, one that makes for a stronger society.
So for now I think it’s time to heed Phillip Hammond’s warning and stop talking about it. Let’s just say ‘I do’ to gay marriage and move on.