Wednesday, February 06, 2013

equal marriage

I've never understood marriage, unless it's for tax or citizenship reasons. Maybe I'm just not romantic, but I've never been moved to say, "I love you so much that I want to make a contract with the state to ensure that leaving me is an expensive process involving lawyers".

Though I don't want it for me, that's my choice. Ringfencing it, or anything, exclusively for heterosexuality is an injustice to be fought. I think less people should eat at McDonald's but if they had a whites-only policy I'd join the fight against it.

At a time when 'gay' is still a common term to mean pathetic or inept, it is clear we have not reached a point of equality. So the overwhelming parliamentary vote in favour of gay marriage seems almost bizarre to me. I find it hard to take in such colossal progressive support from so reactionary an institution as the House of Commons. But it's also about the pace of change. It's dizzying, confusing and gratifying to realise I'm just not up to speed.

The country I was born into had men in jail simply for being gay. In the early 1970s people would be stopped in the street by police and forced to remove their 'glad to be gay' badges. Those who came out would be called 'self-confessed gays', like murderers or rapists. Around this time the UK had its first Pride marches. They were not the corporate-branded extravaganzas of today, but a few hundred people being jeered by the excessive number of police sent to escort them.

In the 1980s the official response to AIDS was to ignore it and let gay people die, until it appeared to be a threat to the rest of the population. Then the homophobia went into overdrive. Tabloids routinely referred to it as 'the gay plague'. The government passed laws to prevent teachers from depicting gay relationships as equal to straight. Libraries withdrew gay books. Gay newspapers had their offices firebombed and it was defended in parliament with a Tory MP saying, 'it is quite right that there should be an intolerance of evil'. As late as 1989 the Sun said that it was impossible to get AIDS through heterosexual sex and anything else was 'homosexual propaganda'.

A world in which a major rugby player would be out and able to get married to another man was ludicrously unthinkable. So far, so fast.


In the mid 1970s a then-unknown gay activist called Tom Robinson wrote a song called Glad To Be Gay. Two years later, and by then the first out and proud rock star, he released it as a single. Despite radio stations refusing to play it, it got in the top 20. Over the years Robinson rewrote the lyrics to keep them current. It was the protest that mattered to him, not the art.

I thought that was an interesting creative challenge. But these days the various versions of the song have a historic job to do as well. They are a snapshot from every couple of years through a period of extraordinary social change on the issue.

As a generation come of age who struggle with the idea that homosexuality was ever illegal, who have never heard of Clause 28 or the Spanner trial, it is important to remember what was done. It is not just about gay rights, it is also a stark lesson that society at every level can discriminate against whole groups but it doesn't make it right. So I did a website of all the versions of Glad To Be Gay, explaining the references.

The very first version of the song talked of Peter Wells, a man who, in 1974, was 26 but his boyfriend was 18. The age of sexual consent was 16 for straights but 21 for gay men. Had Wells fallen for a woman it would have been socially lauded and they would have been able to marry. But it was another man, so he got two and a half years in jail. There he was beaten and abused by inmates and guards alike, even before his conviction. He spent the last year of incarceration in solitary confinement.

But whilst inside he launched a case at the European Court of Human Rights, saying that the different age of consent was discrimination. He did not win but, as with so many political campaigns that fail, it laid the foundations for those who came after to succeed. In the late 1990s a young man called Euan Sutherland brought another case, citing Wells' work. He won and the UK was forced to equalise the age of consent.

Peter Wells did not live to see it. He died in violent circumstances in 1979, aged 31. Brought up in borstal institutions, imprisoned for being gay, he was the victim of a swathe of brutality and alienation that we have succeeded in rolling back. I've researched and written a biography of him that will be published soon.

Today, Peter would be five weeks into his retirement. Those of us who celebrate last night's progressive landmark owe him, and so many others like him, thanks. As Owen Jones reminds us, we must remember that this hasn't come about through government benevolence but through the persistent campaigning of brave people.

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