We’ve come too far to retreat now

Opponents of gay marriage need to examine their own prejudices, not oppose equality, writes AIDAN SKINNER


Most of the time, debate is a wonderful thing. It lets you work through your argument, if you’re lucky you learn something about the other sides of the debate, if you’re really lucky you learn something about your own.

Sometimes conflicting rights need to be balanced against each other, such as the right to privacy versus the public interest.

Gay marriage isn’t one of those things. Provided that you accept that (a) it is useful for the state to recognise long term relationships and that (b) the state should not discriminate between its citizens on the basis of gender, sexuality or identity, then this is a pretty straightforward issue.

There is no conflict of  interest between freedom of religion (people will still be able to believe homosexuality is wrong on religious grounds) and freedom to marry the person you love. My personal life does not impinge on your beliefs and your right to swing your fist stops where my nose begins, as the man said.

There’s a debate to be had about the form which state recognition should take – should civil partnerships be available to mixed couples as well as those of the same gender? Would allowing both civil partnerships and marriage better recognise the variety of human relationships that exist? Perhaps there needs to be provision for people in long term, non-sexual relationships who would benefit from simpler property transfers.

What should not be open to serious debate is the government continuing to discriminate on the basis of sexuality, just as we don’t countenance policies which discriminate on the basis of race or religion. It would not be acceptable, much as some hardliners would like to do so, to suggest that we prohibit athiests (or Edinburgh-Glasgow couples, lest they be confined to Harthill services) from marrying.

There aren’t a variety of equally valid view points that should be listened to, taken into consideration and a balance struck on this issue. There is equality on one side, and discrimination, prejudice, bigotry, hatred and homophobia on the other.

Does that sound harsh? Unfair? Well, homosexuality was still a criminal act in Scotland in the year I was born, 1980. The age of  consent wasn’t equalised until I was 20. I remember being jeered at and worse on Pride marches in the 1990s. Fortunately these days it’s largely limited to one crazy couple with a some bible references scrawled in marker on cardboard. Pride is traditionally held in late or early July because that’s when the Stonewall riots in New York took place. LGBT rights have, by and large, been hard won and paid for with blood and tears.

Blood, tears and shame. When gay sex was legalised in England and Wales in 1967 by a Labour government, Roy Jenkins the Home Secretary said: “Those who suffer from this disability carry a great weight of  shame all their lives.” And he was the progressive one.

We’ve come a long way since people had to leave in the morning, with everything they own in a little black case. In the more enlightened clubs in the bigger cities it’s now possible for gay people to be open about their sexuality, to meet like mixed gender couples meet, to flirt and kiss. In others that’s still a quick way to a beating. We’ve come a long way, but we’ve got a long way to go as a society.

Sometimes government should follow public opinion. But sometimes, as in 1967, it should lead it. Happily, it seems that most people in Scotland support equal marriages. If they didn’t though, it would still be the right thing to do and the government should ignore those who disagree.

If people are not “comfortable” with gay marriage then they need to recognise that the problem is with them. Some people are quite happy with that explanation. If they can’t readily explain it, then they should explore carefully why. Everybody has prejudices, and confronting them is an incredibly uncomfortable thing, particularly if you don’t really realise you have them or that they affect your  actions. Moving to North London and being exposed to Islingtonites was an eye-opening experience for me, even as a confirmed Guardian reader.

But prejudice is a private thing. Our politicians who suffer from that terrible disability carry a great weight of shame, but they should not  let it affect their actions.

Aidan Skinner is a white middle class man in a mixed sex relationship, but tries not to let that hold him back. Follow him on Twitter at @AidanSkinner.

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20 thoughts on “We’ve come too far to retreat now

  1. (I’d like to point out that since this piece was written John Mason has gone one newsnight and said he’s “comfortable” with gay marriage)

  2. Bravo. A level headed and above all intelligent perspective on an emotive issue. You get my vote on this issue.

  3. According to some posters on the last thread, Labour’s “job” is to oppose anything and everything brought forward by the SNP government. I look forward to seeing how this attitude is dealt with when the government eventually bring forward legislation re gay marriage.

  4. This entire debate and your article fails to recognise that a) the state does indeed recognise long term relationships (whether same sex or otherwise) that have been formalised and b) in legal terms, there is currently no discrimination between formalised same sex relationships and formalised mixed sex relationships.
    This is not a debate about equality. Given the tone of your article, it would appear that you are not willing to enter discussion on this and therefore perhaps a good start would be for you to look at your own prejudices.

    1. Somewhat unhappily, Bill Walker, MSP has made the case for why this important: “There are things called civil partnerships, which I accept, but I’m really concerned about the use of the term ‘gay marriage’ because to me it’s a contradiction in terms and anything that puts homosexual relationships as any way equal to male-female marriages is just not right.”


  5. We do not have equality when we categorise same sex and mixed sex relationships differently. This encourages people to value them differently. Social equality is every bit as important as legal equality; it is what stigmatised groups strive for in order that they might live full lives without fear of the consequence of others’ prejudice. It is an area in which the state should show leadership.

  6. In the light of the recent internet petition suggesting Bert & Ernie (Sesame Street) should come out as an openly gay couple we might take heart from your suggestion that provision could be made for people in “long term, non-sexual relationships [to] benefit from simpler property transfers”. Whether Bert & Ernie share a bed or merely their lives it would be sad to think that one might be made homeless on the death of the other or be faced with heavy death duties.

  7. And on the subject of marriage inequality – in the case of a heterosexual relationship where one partner is transgender and wishes to transition it is still the case that they must get divorced first, (then transition) before they can get the gender recognition certificate. At this point they are only allowed a civil partnership as the state won’t let this couple remain married if one has the ‘wrong bits’. I put to debate – is the issue ‘wrong bits’ or ‘wrong law’? I rest my case m’lud.

  8. The law gives the same rights (property, etc) to people in a same-sex relationship as those in a mixed-sex one, as JK says. Marriage has civic status of course but, for many, is of deep religious significance. It’s a tricky business when you want to rule people with regular religious faith as bigots per se, especially if you’re in a minority. You’re literally telling them what they may and may not believe – not recommended in a free society on the whole. Moreover, and secondarily, it’s hard for progressive politicians to engender gradational change when people are calling ‘good’ Christians and Muslims, and much besides, the length and breadth of the country bigots by definition. Best to tread carefully with that one.

    1. If people don’t believe in a marriage then they are free not to get involved. Nobody is putting legislation to the head of clergy and demanding they bless same sex marriages.

      What is not ok is for the beliefs of people who are not involved to impinge on others in this way. I’m not telling anybody what they may or may not believe. I’m defending the line between private belief and public policy.

      As Judith Fisher eloquently put it “Against same-sex marriage? Then don’t marry someone of the same sex!

      As for being in a minority, according to Scottish Social Attitudes nearly 2/3rd of Scots support this and less than 1/4th are opposed:

  9. I think we need to be more clear here about our definitions Eric. Marrigage does indeed have a civic status to all, a religious significance to some, but to others it emphatically does not. Indeed “civil marriages” reject religiousity by definition. So, at least in terms of civil marriges the State must not play favourites with the aspirations of its citizens. And I think your own term “civic”, whilst abstract nevertheless shows the power of handling these issues. I know a professor in a Uni dept didn’t get a whip round when he announced his civil partnership, but it is the norm for marriage announcments. When such unconcious civic distinctions are made in the Ivory towers its not hard to see why fundamental perceptions of civic inequality can influence discourse in far less “civilised” settings such as the school playground and its pestilential, negative use of the word “gay”.

    Moreover, distinctions should be made between people who hold fundamentally discriminatory beliefs and “religious bigots”. The later sounds definative and permits the holders of these beliefs to point out the unsophisticated labeling and conflate the power of this charge with the veracity of those discriminatory beliefs. This is unfortunate and I agree it would be far better dealt with by attacking the argument and not the person.

    So I don’t think its legit for you to claim that attacks on those religious beliefs is the same as attempting to dictate the right to hold their beliefs, only the legitimacy of the beliefs. You could even say its imperative to question the legitimacy of the religious beliefs when there is an attempted imposition of them on other religions. So, given that churches who don’t believe in gay marriage won’t be foced to perform them, and that we don’t let the religious significance of, say, Muslim marriages to define the permissability of Cathlolic marriages; why should we allow eg the Catholic Church to impose its religious definition of marriage on eg the Episcopalian definition which includes, sometimes mandates that gay relationships occur within religious marriage?

  10. Apologies for the typos, my keyboard is a little sticky due to un unfortunate Iron Bru incident…

  11. Thanks for that, John. Did you know IRN BRU came from Falkirk originally? Oh yes! I don’t really dispute anything you say. It seems to me, though, that when you’re trying to get people to accept change, calling them a bigot (which many folk, not you – I appreciate your intelligent distinction – seem to be doing) isn’t at all helpful. Most people accept that it’s only possible to legislate with consent; it’s also important not to run roughshod over the feelings of large minorities (or even majorities!). So, over time, you have to persuade as many people as you can of your case. Simply calling decent people bigots makes change less likely, not more. I’ve noticed the term being used even in respect of denominational schools, but only in Scotland and often I’m afraid by Labour people too – it isn’t a good trend.

    1. Sorry, I fundamentally disagree about this – equality before the law isn’t something which should rely on the opinion of the majority of the population granting it. All people should be equal, regardless of how popular they are. Sometimes it is important to ride roughshod over the feelings of minorities or majorities of public opinion, that’s most often been how equality has been won.

      That’s the thing about equality really, it can’t be given (because it can then be taken away again), equality must be taken and jealously guarded.

      I agree simply calling people names is counter productive, but pointing out that people saying things like “gay relationships aren’t as good as straight relationships” are being bigoted is surely just fair comment?

  12. I am delighted to learn Falkirk is the source of that tasty, tasty beverege! Like Aidan, I don’t buy “rule by non-offense”. We so often look back at the segregationists and their appeasers like quaint moral inferiors, but here we are again saying (in a lesss severe situation granted) that rights and aspirations of one group must be put on hold for the aquisence of another who quite simply won’t be affected by legislative change in any tangable way. Hurt feelings strikes me as a pretty lame excuse to delay social justice.

    Looking forward to said riposte!

  13. Aidan – civil partners already have equality before the law. We have already argued this out on a different forum and you failed to rise to my challenge of pointing out 5 instances where there is an actual legal difference between a couple in marriage and a couple in a civil partnership. Nevertheless, for the record I feel I ought to post this here.

    There is no distinction, before the law, between a same sex couple who have a formalised relationship which is recognised by the state and a mixed sex couple who also have had their relationship formalised and recognised by the state. Accordingly, there is no discrimination. It follows that there is therefore already equality before the law.

    You seem to be calling for civil partnerships to be scrapped. That seems a regressive appropach and one that I would probably not agree with.

    Whether people view civil partnerships differently (as John alludes to with his Uni Prof example) is not a matter that will be solved by legislation. This consultation will be divisive and if legislation follows, arguably very little will change in relation to the legal outcome of a marriage/civil partnership (I’m thinking of succession/inheritance rights etc). My view is that legislation is therefore a waste of valuable parliamentary time.

    I also agree with Eric that the reasoning of your side’s arguments needs to change. The allegation that I am a “bigot” or “homophobic” purely because I oppose legislation on this minority interest group issue is offensive and unhelpful. If anything, it makes me more determined to voice my opposition. Until those who wish to redefine the ancient social institution of marriage on a whim learn to use more temperate language and adopt a more liberal approach to those who voice opinions against their minority ideas, I fear that this issue will do more damage than good. You really must recognise that on this issue, as with every other issue, there is a wide range of views across and within our parties and each view ought to be engaged with respectfully.

    It seems that your anti-marriage/anti-civil partnership lobby have picked a fight over something that very few people actually care about. On the doors and on the campaign trail, the issue was never really mentioned by anyone. Presumably with unemployment rising etc, people have more real and fundamental worries than how we refer to a formalised legally recognised relationship between two people.

    I fear that this is going to be a long, drawn out, divisive debate which will leave bitterness all round and is a debate that it is probably not worth having. Is it not more important to be discussing unemployment, crime, poor housing, poverty, land reform, etc etc?

    1. I’m so sorry that I only gave 2 reasons (and really 1 should have been enough), not the arbitrary five you deemed necessary before this “minority interest” as you so dismissively and repeatedly put it is worthy of consideration.

      As I said in the Other Place, if your objection is that this should be a straightforward tidying up exercise then I agree – it should be.

      If it’s that there are more substantial objections to what’s a smaller step towards full equality than civil partnerships, the repeal of section 2a, equalised age of consent or just making homosexuality not a criminal offence then that alone surely makes this a fight worth having?

      And fight it is. Not a debate. Not a discussion. A fight. A struggle. A cause. Or is it one that you’re not particularly interested in, or actually oppose?

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