Whichever way things turn out, 2013 is likely to be a defining year in terms of LGBT rights in the United Kingdom. After much talk – not to mention countering opposition amongst his own party and ‘traditional’ supporters – it seems that David Cameron will finally push through full gay marriage equality. Either that, or the dissenting elements will conspire to make this too hot a political potato for him to grasp in order to make good on his pledge.
Whatever one’s opinion of Cameron, it is impossible not to admire him for his perseverance What many of us may have cynically dismissed in 2010 as being part of an overall agenda to assert the ‘progressive’ or ‘reformed’ nature of his party appears to have some genuine conviction; indeed, it would arguably make more sense in the current political climate to court grass-root Conservative elements and turn his back on the issue. There is always some way in politics to justify (or seek to justify) a change in direction.
What is more interesting in this matter is the general perception by the opponents of gay marriage of how those of us agitating for full equality operate; or put simply, the vocal nature in which we fight for equal rights.
The crux of the issue is that, even in 2013, many people and groups are uncomfortable with LGBT visibility and voice. Religious institutions, for example, are very high up on this list. The myriad of issues here could all take up an article, nay a thesis, in their own right, but let us content ourselves with the Catholic Church’s recent offensive against LGBT people.
Whilst it finds itself good enough to deem LGBT people as worthy of some respect and (forgive me for the term) ‘toleration’, the Catholic Church is not prepared to give real ground in terms of full equality. Under Pope Benedict’s guidance, there were two directions that the church could take; either it could seek to reconnect with liberal-minded people by taking the bold step to embrace the change in social attitudes that pervade most civilised countries in today’s world regarding such issues, or it could seek to galvanise support with a ‘no surrender’, ‘no compromise’, approach. Benedict elected for the latter.
Hence, we have the rhetoric the like of which we endured at Christmas. Leading figures in both the Catholic and Anglican church took advantage of their position at a time when most people are celebrating the love and companionship of their families and friends, many of which will undoubtedly include LGBT people (even, surprise surprise, in Iran) to spread a message of intolerance and hate. They seek, whilst professing their general ‘tolerance’, to deem LGBT people either as disordered, or not worthy of equal rights such as marriage, because this threatens their own perception of how these institutions should function. In doing so, they casually ignore the real history of how said institutions have evolved; marriage existed before the Christian Church did.
This much, we all know. What is interesting, and worrying, is how leading religious figures and other opponents of marriage equality respond to the challenge that LGBT people pose to such arguments; one has only to take into account the contempt held for figures such as Peter Tatchell, often labelled a ‘troublemaker’. (Interesting when Tatchell is such an ardent supporter of free speech even when in direct contrast to his personal convictions.) What many of these religious leaders seek to do is to assume the position that because they are the representatives of a religion, they are entitled to express their views without challenge. This is not good enough.
Indeed, it is more insidious than just that. What the opponents of equality are doing today is charging those who object to their warped sense of reality with the crime that they themselves are guilty of: intolerance. Is it, therefore, intolerant of me to criticise the church because it seeks to deny me the rights that non-LGBT people were born with? I think not.
Let us proceed to what is often the second argument used when someone does not like what you are saying – that it is ‘unseemly’, or ‘impolite’, to criticise those who spread their intolerant views. How very, depressingly British; and, may I say, ridiculous. Here, many LGBT people are also guilty. Why are many of us still bound by the notion, in 2013, that it is even acceptable for us to be hidden, or less vocal in who we are, or about the rights that we should have, because it is ‘unseemly’? Or that it is ‘disrespectful’ to criticise an institution just because it happens to be a church?
This sense that LGBT people should be quiet pervades a wider issue; that of visibility. Consider exactly where you are safe to express affection towards a partner. In London, for example, this area is very small. For an area which has such a large concentration of LGBT people, it also has a high incidence of LGBT-related attacks. Nevertheless, we are told that generally we are ‘tolerated’ and that, despite lacking rights such as marriage, we have a pretty good deal. In other words, why are you complaining? As LGBT people we are essentially conditioned to think that we should consider ourselves grateful if people are not openly spitting at us in the street. If we are to continue to fight the existing prejudice that still pervades all levels of our society, we need to achieve full equality in all matters.
But this ‘put up and shut up’ attitude is exactly what the opponents of equality would like LGBT people to subscribe to; that they have been good enough to concede, or to compromise, some element of their bigoted views by allowing us a measure of equality through their ‘toleration’ and that we should be grateful for that. Gay marriage is firmly placed under these provisos by these people, and we should not complain, because they have been good enough to ‘tolerate’ us by giving us something second best. Well, ‘toleration’ is crass, and it is not enough. We are not entitled to ‘toleration’; we are entitled to equality because we are people, regardless of LGBT status, and why should anyone put a limit of ‘too far’ on our equality?
And we are entitled to be vocal about this. It is no more ‘unseemly’ of us to criticise those who deny others their equality than it is ‘unseemly’ for those who deny it to do so under a cloak of ‘religion’, or of ‘being entitled to an opinion’. In a free society, with freedom of expression, you open yourself to the scrutiny of others when you express an opinion, so get over it and stop being a coward.
Politicians are just as guilty of this cowardice, either in their reaction to bigotry, or in their opposition to equality. Consider the case of Conservative MP Gordon Henderson, who left Twitter last December because of the reaction to his anti-equal marriage tweets. His reason: that those arguing against him were demonstrating the very ‘intolerance’ that they were charging him with. One would think that someone who has decided to become a member of parliament might demonstrate more resilience.
Now, let’s be clear: it is indeed unacceptable, and unintelligent, to respond to views such as Mr Henderson’s with insults or offensive rhetoric. If that was the response that his views garnered, that is wrong; but, on the other hand, if you are a public figure using Twitter to spread your convictions, you should expect a response. To respond is not intolerant; it is holding an elected representative to account for views that seek to deny others their equality. Surely that’s part of democracy?
Similarly, politicians need to have more strength in their convictions against such opposition. When Nick Clegg was reportedly prepared to describe religious opponents of gay marriage as ‘bigots’ in September, he had to write a public letter of apology to the Archbishop Canterbury and the Archbishop of Westminster, hoping that ‘the serious error that occurred will not cause lasting offence’.
Why? We would have no problem in describing a public figure or institution expounding an anti-equality view based on a person’s race or religion as ‘bigoted’; why should Mr Clegg not have the right to describe a figure from a religious institution referring to LGBT people in similar terms? Hold on, we’ve just answered that one; apparently it’s acceptable if it’s LGBT people, and it’s the church talking, but not vice versa. Even our politicians are held captive by this notion.
So, yes, it is 2013, and no-one is denying the great strides that have been made in terms of equality. But no-one should be allowed to fool LGBT people that this is as much as they can expect to be ‘given’ , or that they should be quiet and polite about what they do not have. Where full equality on such issues as marriage is denied us, we should seek to take it, and we have the right to be visible and vocal about it without feeling the need to apologise. If others perceive that as being intolerant, they should not seek to promote their own intolerance.
Images: David Cameron MP courtesy of No. 10 Downing Street; Pope Benedict XVI courtesy of Giuseppi Ruggirello; Gordon Henderson MP courtesy of Pink News; Nick Clegg MP courtesy of David Spender.