THE CLOCKS WENT FORWARD in the UK last weekend, in more ways than one. The official start of British Summer Time with daylight saving coincided with the legalisation of same-sex marriages in England and Wales. So began an extraordinary week for LGBT equality.
On Saturday March 29th, lesbian and gay couples around the country vied to be the first to be legally married, with several timing their services as close to midnight as possible:
An estimated 70 couples across England and Wales took advantage of the change in law on Saturday, and the media was filled with mostly positive portrayals of this landmark for equality.
A BBC survey revealed that 80% of people would attend a gay wedding if invited (though their headline focussed on the negative responses:
Twitter feeds filled with supportive messages from celebrities. Actor and comedian Les Dennis tweeted:
If you’re Gay and getting married today it’s appropriate that the clocks go forward. We are no longer in the Dark Ages. Congratulations.
— Les Dennis (@LesDennis) March 29, 2014
Sadly it was not all good news.
In the early hours of Sunday 30th a gay pub in Bangor, north Wales, was set on fire in what appears to be a response to news of marriage equality:
On Monday 30th, two of the four major national TV channels featured marriage equality in high profile programmes.
Channel 4 was the first to screen a same-sex wedding – not just any wedding either, but one written by the couple and performed by them and their guests in the style of a musical.
The couple met while working on Boy George’s musical Taboo, and used their skills of song-writing and singing to bring a powerful pro-equality message to the nation.
Our Gay Wedding: The Musical, presented by Stephen Fry, gave millions of viewers front row seats at a joyous celebration which transcended gay stereotypes to show far the UK has come from criminalisation and prejudice to more widespread acceptance and affirmation of the validity of same-sex relationships. It did not shy away from the need to continue to strive for equality around the world – as some countries move forward, others such as Russia, India, Uganda and Nigeria legislate to take rights, freedoms and even life away from gay people.
It informed those who may not have known the full significance of this event while remaining popular, entertaining, and accessible.
Meanwhile on BBC2, the channel’s highest rated comedy featured a storyline about a gay couple wanting to getting married in church. Rev, a sitcom about a vicar coping with the demands of running an inner-city parish, portrayed two men asking for a wedding. The vicar struggles to find a way to respect the couple and honour their relationship while staying within church law.
The humour lay in the timely but good natured satire of the Church of England’s objections to same sex marriage and its uneasy compromise of allowing priests to ‘say prayers for’ a couple after their civil marriage, but not to bless them or do anything resembling a marriage service.
WATCH: Rev series 3 episode 2
Such was the impact of this satire that on Tuesday 1st April, a vicar blogged that the Church of England was suing the BBC for portraying a vicar carrying out an illegal act on church premises and, as a result, the BBC was cancelling the series.
However, many readers of the blog post failed to notice the date, and fell victim to this April Fool. The fact that it was so convincing shows just how ridiculous the Church of England’s position is – as the state religion, they are obliged to marry any couple in a parish – except a same sex couple, which is explicitly forbidden in the new marriage law.
On Wednesday 2nd April I learned from the blog of international LGBT human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell that the UK Government has launched a public consultation on the future of civil partnerships, the legal unions for same-sex couples which began in 2005.
The options under consideration are:
- Abolish the legal relationship of civil partnership and convert existing civil partnerships into marriages
- Stopping new civil partnerships being registered, but retaining existing ones, effectively phasing them out over a generation
- Retaining and opening up civil partnership to opposite-sex couples.
Peter Tatchell is calling for greater relationship equality by allowing the choice of civil partnership or marriage for ALL couples, as is already legal in the Netherlands. This would end the current inequality where a straight couple who does not believe in marriage but would like legal protection for their relationship but cannot get it. It would also allow gay couples who prefer not to marry to become or remain civil partners under the current system.
If you are UK citizen, you have until April 17th to have your say. Click on the link below to read Peter’s views and follow his links to the Government survey.
On Thursday 3rd I had the pleasure of attending a local community college to talk to students about LGBT Awareness. I was volunteering with Diversity Role Models, a charity which runs workshops with classes of children and young people in which role models speak about their experiences of either being LGB or T or being a straight ally. This was my third day of workshops, though this was the oldest age group I had met, between 16 and 18 years old.
I was hugely impressed to see such a warm welcome and open-minded attitude from these students in a small town – while there is still work to be done to remove discrimination and bullying from schools, the message is one of empathy, and hope for the future.
They listened respectfully to my story about coming from a place of shame and fear of my own sexuality, and how others would react, to my coming out and being part of the first couple to register our civil partnership in a place of worship in the UK (see photo top of page) – a landmark on the way to marriage equality that was realised more fully in England and Wales this week.
On Friday 4th, the Archbishop of Canterbury, the head of the Church of England and the Anglican Communion of churches worldwide, took part in a radio phone-in programme on London’s LBC station.
In response to a Church of England priest who called in to ask why English clergy were not allowed to decide for themselves whether to marry gay couples, he said:
‘I have real hesitations about [same sex marriage]. I’m incredibly uncomfortable saying that because I really don’t want to say no to people who love each other. But you have to have a sense of following what the teaching of the Church is. We can’t just make sudden changes.’
One reason why not, explained the Archbishop, was because doing so could put Christians in danger elsewhere. He explained that he had seen first hand, at a mass grave in Africa, the lethal fallout from a decision on sexual equality taken by Christians in another country.
He said he had been told that the excuse given for the murder of hundreds of Christians there had been:
‘If we leave a Christian community in this area, we will all be made to become homosexual, and so we’re going to kill the Christians… The mass grave had 369 bodies in it and I was standing with the relatives. That burns itself into your soul, as does the suffering of gay people in this country.’
The outcry in response to this continues – while he acknowledged ‘the position of gay people in this country, how badly they’ve been treated over the years, how badly the church has behaved’, he appeared to be saying that the deaths of hundreds of Africans Christians is a worse outcome than refusing the marriage of British and American gay people.
True on one level, but it fails to account for the role of religion in the extremes of homophobia which contribute to the deaths of gay people worldwide, such as the Anglican church in Uganda’s apparent approval of a law which threatens to ‘kill the gays’, and to imprison a former bishop who refused to give up his ministry to lesbian and gay Christians. Anglican church leaders in Uganda’s response was to expel him from his post. They also took part in a public celebration of the passing of the law which makes homosexual acts punishable by death.
On Saturday 5th I attended a conference organised by Pink Therapy, an independent therapy organisation working with gender and sexual diversity. One of the conference speakers, psychologist Michelle Bridgman, explained how she underwent gender transition while still married, and is still legally considered to be a man. In order to gain legal recognition for her gender identity, she would have to get a divorce from her partner of forty years who has loved and stood by her. She is taking her case to the UK Supreme Court next month. She is also campaigning against the ‘spousal veto’ contained in the new marriage law which states that married transgender people will need their husband or wife’s permission before they can have their gender recognized.