February 6, 2013
Order the Confetti! But is Homophobia a Vote-Winner Anymore?
SO! Same sex marriage! Second Reading! 400 votes to 175! Today is a truly great day for LGBT people in Britain. The last form of de jure discrimination is falling.
It’s been less of a great day for David Cameron, who saw more Tory MPs vote against the bill than vote for it. And that is quite sad, really. It’s sad because it means that a majority of the Tory Party believes that it has an electoral winning strategy based on discrimination and enforcing inequality. UKIP has recently been trying very hard to reinforce this notion and drag David Cameron away from just one more game of Fruit Ninja or face the mass haemorrhage of disgruntled Tories to Nigel Farage’s grinning arms. Their most recent tactic is to try to capitalise on the outrage among religious conservatives at the introduction of gay marriage. And that’s even more sad, because at least when Liberal Democrat MP Sarah Teather disgracefully voted against the bill, she at least did so on grounds of conscience, rather than blatant political opportunism.
My feed was filled with comments recently from friends shocked that 500,000 people turned out to protest the same sex marriage proposal by President Hollande in France. While I am disappointed that so many people turned out on a social issue yet had nothing to say about rampant economic inequality, I can’t bring myself to think badly of people who just want to stick to marriage-as-baby-incubator model that we’ve had in Europe for a very, very long time, John Boswell’s research on medieval gay marriages notwithstanding. I can understand people being uncomfortable by same sex marriage on grounds of tradition, rather than homophobia, though I don’t agree.
I used to agree, actually. I had this idea that marriage was a purely religious thing, and that as there weren’t any religions that agreed with same sex marriage that I was aware of at the time, then we couldn’t justify breaking with such a long history when very few gay people wanted to get married. But that was in the 90s, which was well over a decade ago (just to make you feel old). I got over it when I realised that I had friends who wanted to get married and couldn’t because the state didn’t think they were the right genders. Friends both secular and religious. Attitudes change very, very fast when discrimination wears a human face. It struck to me that it doesn’t matter what my religious views are, there is no conceivable reason why a secular state-sanctioned union should be regulated according to the mores of clergy who have nothing to do with it anyway, and even less reason why those same clergy should have any influence over the marriages performed by clergy of a different religion altogether. But, coming from that background, I see where some of the more heartfelt same sex marriage opponents are coming from: I just wish they’d campaign as hard on heterosexual divorce (though some are).
So, the social conservatives currently looking at UKIP with fresh eyes, or cheering on the Tory backbenchers as they fear-monger about incest in the streets as a result of letting people make lifelong commitments to one another, aren’t necessarily doing it because they actually hate gay people. I want to be honest about that. We live in scary times, with old certainties about who you are and where you stand in society are being melted away or undermined. The idea being pushed by some marriage equality advocates that heterosexual people aren’t affected by gay marriage is ridiculous – when you can no longer assume when someone says they’re married that they are heterosexual, when every form has to become gender neutral, when you have to rethink every thing ever labelled “Him and Her” – yeah, heterosexual people are affected. Not negatively, but they do have to think about it (would you want it any other way?). You can see why some people living with economic and social insecurity are going to freak out at such an immense change to the way we conceive of gender roles in the UK. Clearly, there’s some votes to be had.
The problem with chasing those votes is, in just six years, ten states across the world have ripped up their old marriage laws, and that number looks set to double in the next year or two. Countries as far apart as South Africa, Argentina and Nepal, have or are introducing same sex marriage. This isn’t a decadent Western affectation. We’re looking at a tsunami of social change, and, now that the dam has been broken, we’re not going back. Many conservative-minded people have just accepted this and are simply trying to secure a religious exemption, which seems fair to my mind. If we accept that Catholics can refuse to marry divorcees or Jews can refuse to conduct interfaith weddings just because, then it seems just as fair to allow people whose definition of marriage doesn’t include gay people. Refusing to let your church hall to a gay couple would be a different matter, but that’s already illegal anyway.
With opposition to marriage equality dropping by 5 points a year in the US, and a solid majority already in favour of same sex marriage here, it would have to take a world crisis of hitherto unknown proportions to persuade our society to demonise and victimise and discriminate against LGBT people the way we used to. The sorry biography of Oscar Wilde, sentenced to prison for sodomy and exiled to France to escape the outrage of the public to die in penury, seems impossible now.
No, there’s no political advantage in the long-term to trying to gain votes by being homophobic. The average coming out age is now 15 – nearly everyone knows someone who’s gay who isn’t a moral deviant. The bastions of bigotry are aging and dying off. Is it seriously viable in the long term for any party to throw its lot in with the likes of the BNP and the Christian Party? In thirty years’ time, when the people brandishing the anti-gay placards now will be viewed with uncomprehending eyes the way we views the placard of the seventies opposing inter-racial marriage, UKIP and the Tory leadership will have a very awkward time on its hands trying to explain away its fuss over gay people wanting to form permanent unions sanctified by state and society.
It seems pretty odd right now.
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