Earlier this week I was the guest speaker at the school assembly for Carshalton High School For Girls. I was invited by pupils who told me the school was celebrating the legalisation of equal marriage and spreading the phrase ‘Gay is OK’.
As someone who remembers Section 28 all too clearly, I readily accepted the invitation. The whole morning spent with these wonderful teenagers and their teachers was both moving and inspiring.
For the past three years, I played Nikki Boston in BBC One school drama Waterloo Road. Every single day I received messages on social media from kids struggling to deal with their sexuality or with gender issues. Struggling because of homophobic bullying, because the phrase ‘that’s so gay’ has become a way to describe something that’s rubbish, because they don’t know how to speak to their peers or their families and because they feel lesser by admitting that they’re gay.
At Carshalton High School, we talked a lot about language and why it’s so important to consider the words we use and how they’ll affect other people. I also explained that, for me, this is one of the main reasons that equal marriage is so important.
My partner and I had a beautiful Civil Partnership last year and since we’d already spent five years together, I was unprepared for the very subtle, gorgeous change that your relationship experiences when you make those vows. A feeling of security and calm came with having made the commitment, of telling each other, in front of all of the people we love, that this is forever.
I’ve described this to many people who have then asked why we really need equal marriage if a civil partnership looks the same, feels the same and by all accounts is the same. There are obviously a few legal differences with regards to wills, pensions and the fact your ceremony can't take place with any religious context. But the biggest difference is simply language. By calling it something else, we constantly reinforce to wider society and, most importantly to the next generation, that same sex partnerships are different, that they are somehow less. Less important, less real, a lesser love.
The passing of equal marriage will send a message to young people struggling with their sexuality that their future relationships matter. One day they will have the choice to commit to the person they love in exactly the same way as their straight friends. It will tell them that their love is not different and it will also send exactly the same message to straight kids.
There’s a long way to go until our society achieves equality for LGBT people and we must not forget the bigger struggles faced by our brothers and sisters internationally. But equal marriage is a massive step and even if the tradition of marriage isn’t something you’re interested in, then just having the choice to reject it is something to celebrate.
The ‘Gay Is OK’ assembly at Carshalton High School was organised completely by the students and included dances, videos and speeches. I left feeling incredibly optimistic. With a bit more pressure, campaigning and fighting from our generation, the next generation will ridicule the fact that we had to fight at all.