Comment: Reflections on speaking out for equal marriage before a committee of MPs tasked with changing the law

PinkNews logo on pink background with rainbow corners.

As the chairman of the Marriage (Same sex couples) Bill committee called for the representatives of ‘Out of Marriage’ to come forward, the Boothroyd room erupted into laughter. He meant, of course, ‘Out4Marriage’, but in many ways the title that he gave was apt. James-J Walsh and I, who gave evidence are indeed ‘Out of Marriage’, in that I am barred from ever marrying my partner simply because I am gay.

I’ve been to the Boothroyd room at Portcullis House, in the Parliamentary complex many times before. But I’ve always attended as a journalist, mostly for Channel 4 News, to sit in the press section and witness select committees, most often Culture, Media and Sport, the Treasury committee, the Business committee or the Home Office. I’ve seen ministers, media moguls, business leaders and bankers interrogated but I never dreamed that I would be sitting facing questions myself, questions about why I should have the same rights as everyone else, even though I’m gay.

Yesterday, the Public Bills Committee dealing the progress of the Marriage (Same sex couples) Bill, with sessions operating very much like a select committee invited myself and other interested parties to give evidence and answer questions about the Government’s proposals to change the marriage laws.

I arrived with James-J Walsh, who like me has been behind the Out4Marriage campaign, a campaign thats origins in many ways reside here at PinkNews. I can imagine that sitting before a group of politicians in just about any other country considering same-sex marriage might have been a nerve-wracking experience. I say this because in most other countries, you wouldn’t expect the committee of MPs scruitnising such legislation to be overwhelmingly in support of it. Just four members voted against equality and it there were many members who are openly gay, some of whom are friends of mine and regularly contribute to PinkNews.

As I argued to David Burrowes, one of an ever-decreasing number of anti-equality voices, this in part is as a reflection of his own party’s policies. While more Tory MPs voted against equal marriage than for it, he and his colleagues all stood for office on the Conservative’s Contract for Equalities that promised to “consider the case for changing the law to allow civil partnerships to be called and classified as marriage. ”

The contract authored by Theresa May, now Home Secretary, said in its foreword: “If we do not deliver on our side of the bargain, then vote us out in five years time.”

Unlike in many other countries where the same-sex marriage has come as a result of grass root campaigns, our marriage policy has come from politicians themselves, with a tiny bit of help from PinkNews, if I might be so bold as to claim. In February 2010, while organisations such as Stonewall were not campaigning for marriage equality, a PinkNews reader asked Nick Clegg in a feature we ran if he would back changing the law, he said yes. Then in April 2010, when David Cameron agreed to answer questions from PinkNews readers, he was asked the same question and responded that he was “open” to introducing marriage equality. Ed Miliband also announced his own support for changing the law in an article he wrote for PinkNews.

Sure these political leaders were asked the question by PinkNews and our readers, but the impetus to do something was theirs and theirs alone. They recognised that there was a need to change thew law. That is why, as I sat explaining why I would never want to enter into a civil partnership, or why I felt we will never combat homophobic bullying against LGBT children without true equality, two Government ministers, Hugh Robertson and Helen Grant, sat nodding their heads. They needed no convincing that the law they have been tasked by David Cameron and Nick Clegg to get onto the statute book is the right thing to do. As we spoke, and occasionally raised a laugh, it was heartening to see nods from Labour MPs and Lib Dem MPs too. This is clearly a change in the law that has support from across the political spectrum.

There was however one notable objector on the committee, the Conservative MP, David Burrowes. He even saw fit to question me on the comments made by PinkNews readers asking: “In terms of freedom, in terms of PinkNews, do you think your forum should be free to allow for the fomenting of hostility, hatred and accusations of homophobia for people like me, who believe that marriage is between a man and a woman, and the distinct value of it?”

I found his questions ironic given that it was PinkNews readers who in some ways kicked off the debate that he is participating in so diligently. I also thought his line of questioning was weak. I responded: “People are entitled to respond to what an MP says in their own way, but I don’t think that’s what we’re encouraging.”

Mr Burrowes then admitted: “I wouldn’t say you are,” but went on to question: “So how do we protect the freedom of conscience?”

I argued that there was nothing in the bill stopping him from continuing to believe that marriage is between a man and woman, that it doesn’t redefine marriages that already exist- it simply would allow me to get married if I want to. But then he went on to ask whether I would distinguish between someone’s views on homosexuality in general, and marriage, in other words, questioning whether you could be pro-gay whilst maintaining that homosexuals should be banned from marriage.

This for me became a conundrum, and given I didn’t have time to think, I wonder if I did say the right thing. I responded: “I do not understand how one can say ‘I am not homophobic, I have nothing against homosexuals, but they can’t get married’, because it really means ‘well I like them, they can do whatever they want, but they can’t have the same rights that I have’

“Jewish people, and black people used to have less rights, all sorts of people used to have less rights because of who they were, and for things they couldn’t help. To try and argue that I am not homophobic but I don’t believe you should be able to have the right to do something, I can’t get that.”

Having watched back video of the session, I realise that in some ways, I was in danger of labelling someone who opposes equality and freedom for same-sex couples as a homophobe. The Oxford Dictionary defines ‘homophobia’ as “an extreme and irrational aversion to homosexuality and homosexual people”. I’m not sure if not allowing same-sex couples to marry is extreme, but if argued in any other context but scripture, I do think it is irrational, at least when it comes to civil marriage (as opposed to religious marriage), something very similar to civil partnerships, something that Mr Burrowes and others now say they support.

On a rational basis, there is no negative consequence of me getting married to my boyfriend one day. Mr Burrowes, would likely never know about it. It wouldn’t change the status of his marriage. Of course, if he was forced to marry another man that would be a different story. Equally given that the Government are proposing strong protections for churches, we wouldn’t be able to go and force them to marry us, something that would be very wrong in my view.

So when he asked me “you don’t mean to say I am homophobic”, to which I responded: “I’m not saying you are”, I hope I was right not to. I know most of the MPs before me definitely weren’t and there is still time for his to change his mind when it comes to the final vote in the House of Commons.