If gay couples can’t get married, my parents shouldn’t have been able to either

by Mark Stockwell

At a recent event for “Conservatives in communications”, I was gently upbraided (cruelly mocked, some would say) by culture minister Ed Vaizey for my all-too-apparent ignorance of the fact that the government’s proposals on same-sex marriage would fall under the remit of his boss at DCMS, Maria Miller. In common with most of the population, I simply hadn’t given the issue a moment’s thought. So it had not occurred to me that the culture secretary, in her dual role as minister for women and equality, would be responsible for the legislation.

In all honesty, I’d rather not be writing this. I’ve got Christmas shopping to do, for one thing. And it’s not as if I’ve got skin in the game. I’m pretty certain I’m not gay. To the best of my knowledge and recollection, I’m not married either. As for the religious aspect, well, the closest I come to belief in the power of a supernatural being is my blind, unquestioning Tory faith in the guiding force of Adam Smith’s invisible hand.

In other words, the whole issue just didn’t seem that important to me. Certainly not important enough to spend time thinking or writing about. Until now.

I’m not sure whom I should blame for the fact that I now find myself hunched over my laptop typing this when I could be hunched over my laptop buying overpriced wooden toys for my nieces and nephews, and working out how to ship some of them to New Zealand in time for the big day. (Just in case my niece and nephew in NZ are reading this, yes, of course Santa will bring all your presents and no, he’s not a supernatural being, he’s absolutely real. I’m afraid you’ll have to ask your mum what “gay” means.)

I could blame Ed Vaizey, of course. The mere fact of his mentioning the issue sowed the seeds of doubt in my mind that maybe this was something more than just a tidying-up exercise.

More obviously, I could blame the government as a whole for picking a fight with the Tory traditionalists who have entirely predictably come out against the idea. Yes, the current position is anomalous but I don’t sense any great clamour for reform, none of Martin Luther King’s “fierce urgency of now.” David Cameron could have just left well alone, for a time at least.

Sadly, though, anomalies which seem minor can give rise to grave injustice. Intolerance of homosexuality remains rife and out-and-out discrimination – as with the gay couple who recently won damages after they were refused accommodation at a B&B – is far from unknown. The absence of full equality sends out a signal that this is somehow acceptable. It is just not good enough for the opponents of gay marriage to point to civil partnerships and argue that same-sex couples should be satisfied with that. In King’s words again, “they can never be satisfied until they can gain lodging in the motels of the highways and the hotels of the cities.”

Ultimately this is a debate about ownership of the concept of marriage, of the very word. It’s one the traditionalists can’t win – because whether they realise it or not, they’ve already given up without a fight.

It is perfectly legitimate for proponents of a particular religious view to try to claim marriage for themselves. If you regard marriage as, say, the union of one man and one woman in the sight of god, that’s fair enough. There’s as much point arguing with that as with the idea that god created the world in six days and on the seventh he rested. It’s an article of faith.

We could, as a society, decide that we’re perfectly content for religious groupings to “own” the concept of marriage. We could say the state has nothing to do with it beyond supporting the ability of two people to enter freely into a contractual arrangement with one another.

Thankfully, the pass has already been sold. My parents were married at Croydon registry office the best part of 50 years ago with nary a crucifix in sight. They are married in the eyes of their friends and family, and in the eyes of the state. God had nothing to do with it. But married they most certainly are.

Secular couples like my parents have shown they share the desire of religious ones to declare publicly their love for and commitment to one another and, crucially, to call that declaration “marriage.” Civil marriage makes that possible. Nobody seems to have any desire to alter that.

Opponents can cite religious objections or invoke “tradition” against same-sex marriage. But the concept of marriage isn’t theirs to dispose of as they see fit. It doesn’t belong to one section of society but to society as a whole. And to the extent that marriage is recognised by the state it must be available on equal terms to all, regardless of their sexual orientation. You can’t continue to deny civil marriage rights to gay couples without also denying them to everyone else. If gay couples can’t get married, my parents shouldn’t have been able to either.

It’s not a question of society munificently granting equal marriage rights to same-sex couples, as if they were somehow applicants for membership of a gentlemen’s club or off-peak gym members wanting to use the pool after work. Whether Tory traditionalists like it or not, gay people are fully paid-up members of the club, and they should have the same rights as everyone else.

Mark Stockwell is a former adviser to the Conservative party. He now works in public affairs

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4 Responses to “If gay couples can’t get married, my parents shouldn’t have been able to either”

  1. Nick says:

    Here’s an even better idea. The state gets out of the marriage business. Then its just a contract and a party.

    Each church can pick its own contracts.

    Divorce is then breach of contract, and there is plenty of law for that.

    No need to consider children. The same law applies as now to married and unmarried when it comes to children.

    Then the state can get out of the other things its screwing up.

    For example, pensions. The biggest fraud going.

    1. False accounting – 4,700 bn hidden off the books
    2. Inducements to contribute.
    3. Plans not to pay.

    section 2 of the 2006 fraud act.

  2. swatantra says:

    Probably the best outcome.
    Before, Gay couples could get a Civil Partnership in a Registry Office; now they can get Married in a Registry Office.
    The Govts proposal woulld allow Gay couples to wed in Church if they were Quakers, which practically rules every other Gay couple out. The Cof E, Hindus, Muslims etc, will choose not to opt in. The latest Census shows that nonbelievers are in the ascendancy so it’ll be the Registry Office for most in years to come.

  3. James Reade says:

    Intolerance may be rife, shamefully, but so is ignorance, as this post exemplifies.

    I can quite happily tolerate someone else’s behaviour – heck, I have to in society, whether I like it or not – but it’s another thing to engage and approve of it, particularly if it goes against one moral code (especially if that moral code is not the slippery one which moves with the times and guides the author of this post).

    Why do we discriminate against business owners who want to offer a particular niche service? That’s what happened with the B&B owners you linked up. What is always omitted to be mentioned (ignorance?) is that the B&B owners made it perfectly clear on their website their policy – unmarried couples could not take up the double rooms. Note: unmarried. So heterosexuals couldn’t have had the rooms if unmarried. How mind-blowingly obvious does it have to be? Why do we wax on about this supposed cruel, mean discrimination against a gay couple when they knew full well on entering the hotel they wouldn’t be offered the room because the owners (ought to have) had the right to decide whether to accept a trade or not? And why shouldn’t people be allowed to set up businesses run on particular principles? It’s a trite right-wing argumentative point (indicative of a style I hate), but I do honestly wonder whether if it was an Islamic B&B, would they have been prosecuted and found guilty?

    Moreover though, I think you show a wilful (?) ignorance of the real issue churches have here – that they will, like the Johns (the B&B owners), eventually be persecuted for refusing to marry gay couples turning up at their church doors, like the gay couple that turned up at the Johns’s B&B despite their website being very clear about their policy.

    Clearly, the underlying subtext here is that people shouldn’t be allowed to act on opinions they hold that some in society (the majority? those “in power”?) have deemed to be not theirs – and heck, we’re going to prosecute them if they have the cheek to insist on those quaint old-fashioned values.

    That is very, very dangerous indeed.

    There is everything to be applauded for many of the gains made in recent years in the rights afforded to homosexuals – there is no way even someone inside the church would support such making of homosexuals second class citizens. However, if you’re going to as a govt afford the church a role in marriage, you have to accept what the Bible says must influence what the church does about marriage. Either fully remove it from official marriage (like in, say, France and Canada), or accept that those in the church will have some issues with directly contravening what their moral guide says about marriage (not about homosexuality).

  4. Robert says:

    Like Mark, I do not feel strongly about gay marriage but see no reason to oppose it.

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