Comment: Equal marriage is a step towards a fairer society

Illustrated rainbow pride flag on a white background.

So, there we have it: equal marriage for same-sex couples in the civil law and the chance for religious groups to choose to offer same-sex religious marriage if they want to. It’s another step toward equality in front of the law for the LGBT community which has come a long way in the 43 years since the Stonewall riots in New York City.

As a Liberal Democrat I am proud my party has consistently been the champion of equality. Our drive to secure equal treatment for one and all is enshrined in the preamble to our constitution, and it is in the DNA of our members. The Liberal Democrats have helped to lead the way in the UK. We were the first party to commit to a policy of civil partnerships, in a Private Members Bill, and at our conference in 2010 we were the first party to adopt equal marriage for same-sex couples.

Of course we were not alone and many from all political hues and none fought and campaigned – it’s to their credit that both the Labour Leader and the Prime Minister now back equal marriage too.

In Britain, over the last 43 years and for many more years before that, we’ve seen thousands of innocent people criminalised and jailed, hundreds subjected to medical torment in the search of a “cure” and scores of thousands of lives wasted by individuals in denial hiding from themselves in the dark. Their only “crime”: to love someone of the same gender and to want to express that love.

We should be clear however that equal marriage won’t mean that the journey is over. Still too many gay children are beaten and bullied by their school mates or kicked out of the family home by their parents. Still too many lesbians are denied promotion at work or told their custom isn’t wanted in a hotel or shop. Still too many people find it difficult to come out to colleagues and live a half-life in the shadows. Many young gay and lesbian people fail to imagine a future where they can be in-love, settled, happy and accepted.

Equal marriage is not the answer for all the LGBT community’s woes but it is the beginning of being able to answer the other questions. The extension of the franchise to women hasn’t yet delivered equal pay for women and the end of apartheid hasn’t yet ended racism but these steps did change the debates. Legal equality for LGBT people will send a clear signal that being gay, lesbian or transgendered is not wrong.

Separate but equal, the mantra behind civil partnerships, was a step along this road – and all credit to the last Government for taking it – but it also sent a subtle message: a wink and a nod that gays were different. Equal marriage ends that – it ends an era of one rule for one section of society and one rule for another.

It will open up a cornerstone institution within our community to couples who want to make a serious commitment to each other and solidify the expression of their love for each other. Equal marriage will allow lesbian and gay young people to imagine a life where they fall in love, get married and live happily ever after in just the same way that their straight friends can.

And it will be a powerful weapon to help end the pernicious sniggering that is still too common in boardrooms, classroom and dining rooms across the country. It will give confidence and support to those people across our country who today, right now, are struggling to find a way to tell their family and friends for the first time in fear of the reaction.

And it strikes the right balance between religious freedom and individual equality. It is, of course, right that religious groups should not be compelled to offer equal marriage – freedom of religion is a core value too. We don’t compel the Church to offer marriage to straight divorcees who wish to remarry and we must not compel them to offer same-sex equal marriage if they choose not to. We know that many faiths will do so.

Equality has always had its enemies – and the flat-earthers in the Tories will no doubt rush so far to the right in opposition to this that they will be in danger of falling off the edge. But opponents are out of step with public opinion and they will soon be out of time. The vocal opposition, when it comes, will only further damage the institutions the opponents of equality claim to want to protect, showing them to be no longer fit for purpose in twenty-first century Britain.

The great march to a fairer and more equal society will continue one step at a time.

Stephen Gilbert is the MP for St Austell & Newquay and proposed the Equal Marriage motion to Liberal Democrat conference in September 2010.