So many equal rights, yet still so little equality

Gay teenagers may have more rights than before - but in a practical sense the victory is hollow
Click to follow
The Independent Online

The Queen's speech promises this week to be fabulously queeny. Not for the first time in the Blair administration, significant changes in the legal status of gays and lesbians are promised.

The civil partnerships bill will confer the same rights on same-sex couples as those which married heterosexual couples enjoy. Partners who register will receive employment and pension benefits, inheritance and parental rights, recognition for immigration purposes, and freedom from testifying against each other in court. If one partner dies, the other will be able to register their death, claim their pension, receive compensation, be exempt from inheritance tax and remain in their property. Which is only right and fair. Anyway, in London, under the auspices of Mayor Ken Livingstone, gays have been able to enter into similar contracts for some while now, without any discernible further collapse in the morals of the capital.

Not so long ago the very idea of legally recognising such relationships was considered anathema to the political right and to the church. The argument always was that such recognition would besmirch the sanctity of the union of marriage between and a man and woman.

But now it has come to the crunch, there doesn't seem to be such a huge pool of people peddling this kind of passionate opposition. Certainly, traditionalists won't like what they see as this further erosion of Victorian efforts to repress all but the most narrowly procreative of sexual relationships.

But Michael Howard, keen to show that he is leading the Conservative party from the centre, has said that he will give his MPs a free vote on the matter. And the former Archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey, remarked on Breakfast with Frost that: "In my book, as long as we don't call it marriage ... there may well be a case for looking at civil partnerships."

In fact, in an almost comic tribute to the degree to which our society has liberalised, the arguments against civil partnerships are coming from a quite different direction. Gay and human rights radicals, such as Peter Tatchell, now argue that the trouble with civil partnerships is that they are only available to gays. Heterosexuals who prefer not to marry, for whatever reason, cannot opt for a civil partnership. This includes not only people in long-term sexual relationships, but also friends who choose in life to look after and care for each other.

This is a valid point. What's funny though, is that the Tories have shown signs of adopting this position as well. Alan Duncan is the Conservative Party's only openly gay MP, so he's hardly part of the traditionalist wing. Yet his warning that: "There will be a distinction between same sex civil partnerships and opposite ones, which could lead to claims that the Government hates straights", still seems like a Tory party heresy, since it's tantamount to a defence of "living in sin".

He is also concerned about non-sexual relationships, and cites the example of sisters living together and looking after each other as a perfect example of a caring human relationship which will find itself left out in the cold. Mr Duncan's arguments cannot be dismissed as coming from the fringes of the party. He is the shadow home office minister who will be put in charge of steering the bill through the Commons for the Tories, and there is every chance that his comments may help to shape its future.

As for the other landmark anti-discrimination bill to be outlined in the Queen's speech, so far no party has made any sign of cavilling about it at all. The Gender Recognition bill promises finally to tackle the ghastly anomaly whereby transsexuals are denied the right to marry because they cannot legally change the sex decreed on their birth certificate. Transsexuals are acknowledged to be physically and emotionally the sex they present themselves as being. The cruelty of denying them legal recognition of that otherwise unassailable fact has always appeared to be simply judgemental and punitive.

At Press for Change, a campaign group which has been fighting for this legislation for decades, activists are jubilant. "We have been waiting for over 30 years for this recognition," said a spokesperson, Christine Burns. "This will make a huge difference to thousands of people's lives in a practical way."

She's right, of course. The only mystifying thing about this piece of legislation, profoundly important to the 5,000 transsexuals in Britain, is why it has taken so terribly long for it to get this far. I suppose it could be argued - though not tremendously forcefully - that politicians have been rightly cautious in allowing legal process to catch up with social change, rather than tackling the more difficult journey of forcing change from the top.

It could also be argued that the way in which political parties now tackle inequality, through changes in laws which discriminate against minorities, is a triumph for the left and its concerns during the 1980s and 1990s under Thatcher then Major. Back then such things as gay rights were ridiculed as concerns of the loony tendency, concerned only with black, one-legged, lesbian single parents.

Now, such issues are very much part of the mainstream. Uncritical supporters of New Labour flaunt their cumulatively impressive record on equality legislation as proof of their social democracy. Enthusiastic proponents of the New Tories invite admiration of their liberality by using their reactions to such legislation as a window box for display of their desire to modernise. In championing the legal rights of minorities, all politicians now appear to win.

They don't just appear to win, they actually win as well. Because the sort of inequalities both parties are keen to be seen tackling are inequalities that it doesn't cost much money to fix. Labour and the Tories may both have swung round admirably on the principles of equality. But on the practicalities of equality, neither party has a great deal to boast about.

Yes, these bills are important. Yes, they are right. Yes, they are moral. They will make a difference to the lives of significant minorities of people, and for that we should be thankful. But nonetheless, in political terms, they honour equality in the abstract, and champion fairness-on-paper, while actual equality, social equality between rich and poor, has been draining away during both parties' terms in power.

Gay teenagers may have more rights than before, with further rights now to look forward to. But in a practical sense the victory is hollow. The life chances of a gay teenager from a poor background are now even more precarious compared to those of a similar chap from an affluent background, regardless of those rights.

The left, in its concern for minority rights in the past, was accused of tokenism by mainstream socialists concerned with advancing the rights of all working people. The charge was unfair, because the issues highlighted at that time were not token issues, but profound ones.

It is ironic indeed that all this time in the future these issues have become such a stock-in-trade among gesture politicians, keen to advertise their liberal credentials, while keeping taxes down. It was the activists who changed people's attitudes to minorities, not the politicians. But it is the politicians who have learned that bestowing rights is cheap, while bestowing fairness is expensive.