Just over 40 years ago, Britain’s first gay rights march ended in Trafalgar Square, half a mile away from where MPs yesterday voted in support of equal marriage. These few hundred courageous demonstrators – popularly regarded as perverts, poofs, deviants – were outnumbered by up to twice as many police officers.
As Tottenham Labour MP David Lammy reminded the House, Parliamentarians once looked the other way when policemen beat gay protesters. What progress has been made, when the last legal hurdle faced by same-sex lovers is cast aside – and when a (partly) Conservative government is in power.
There is no doubting that yesterday’s vote was a historic moment. We are finally at the end of the legal emancipation of LGBT people, a process that only began in 1967 with the decriminalisation of homosexuality. Centuries of state-sanctioned prejudice have been obliterated in the last 40 years: some of the last set of laws denying full rights to a minority are now being overcome. But, as ever, it was not the goodwill and generosity of those above that brought us here, but rather the struggle and sacrifice of countless LGBT people who were spat at, ridiculed, demonised, beaten and imprisoned.
Not that countless centuries of bigotry have simply vanished; their death rattle echoed in the Chamber. Tory MP Peter Bone described it as his “saddest day” in the House, claiming a lack of democratic legitimacy for a policy that polls show has majority support.
Sir Gerald Howarth frothed at the mouth, damning the lack of “mandate for this massive cultural change”. The DUP’s Ian Paisley – the son of a man who once launched a campaign to “Save Ulster From Sodomy” – suggested that the ability of same-sex couples to marry would drive straight people away from the altar: MPs laughed at him, and rightly so. And Sir Roger Gale – fulfilling the role of cardboard cut-out, clichéd bigot – compared being gay to incest. The 17th century called, Sir Roger, and they want their speech back.
Tragically, a handful of Labour MPs joined Tory protests at history’s unstoppable march. Stephen Timms affirmed he would vote against the Bill at Third Reading, suggesting that marriage was about children: at a stroke, apparently annulling the marriages of countless childless couples. His fellow Newham Labour MP, Lyn Brown, wondered – having wed too late to have children – if her marriage was therefore not legitimate.
It was refuseniks such as Timms who stopped Labour imposing a three-line Whip on this vote by threatening to resign: Labour’s official view is that civil rights are a matter of individual conscience.
More movingly, some MPs gave an insight into the hardship caused by prejudice. “Progress has come in fits and starts and has not always been easy,” said gay Lib Dem MP Stephen Williams. Tory MP Nick Herbert spoke of gay children bullied in schools and athletes who would not come out. “They have civil partnerships, why do they need it to be called marriage?” demanded critics who would be reduced to rage if their own relationships were called anything else. “This is how it has always been,” they argued, refusing to accept that traditions can sometimes be injustices that have prevailed for too long.
They were schooled with a potted history of marriage by Yvette Cooper: of how women were once mere objects, granted by fathers to their husbands; of civil non-religious marriages – once a huge, controversial innovation – being introduced in 1836; of women still legally being able to be raped by their husbands until the early 1990s.
And so yesterday was not simply about the right of same-sex couples to be legally accepted. It was not simply the acceptance that love is love – with its excitement, warmth, companionship, fear and heartbreak – whatever the gender of those involved. It was about the state finally recognising that LGBT people are the same as anyone else.
That does not mean complacency: homophobic abuse will still be yelled at same-sex couples; young LGBT men and women will still be consumed with self-loathing and terror; and yes, LGBT people will still be punched, kicked. Yet we have come so far, and, in the years to come, homophobia will continue its inevitable retreat. But don’t get too grateful for those Parliamentarians. It was huge sacrifice that got us here. Never forget it.
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