Lib Dem peer Baroness Barker comes out during equal marriage debate

PinkNews logo with white background and rainbow corners

In yesterday’s House of Lords debate on the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill, Baroness Liz Barker stood to make a speech in which she spoke of her love for another woman – revealing publicly for the first time that she, herself, is in a same-sex relationship.

The Liberal Democrat peer, who was among the first to speak, said she had to “declare an interest”.

“Many years ago, I had the great good fortune to meet someone,” she said. “She and I have loved each other ever since.”

She went on to say it was a “great relief” to read the letter by the Bishop of Salisbury to Lord Alli, in which he argued “Whilst marriage is robust and enduring, what is meant by marriage has developed and changed significantly”.

Ahead of her coming out in the House of Lords debate, which resumes this afternoon, Baroness Barker wrote for describing the challenges the bill faces and urging readers to lobby a Lord to support it.

After her speech she joined other pro-equality campaigners and politicians gathering outside the Houses of Parliament to hold a vigil in favour of same-sex marriage.

As lawmakers across the US debate same-sex marriage in their separate state institutions, more and more are coming out. Most recently, Karen Peterson, a Delaware Senator, announced that she was in a civil union.

Nevada Senator Kelvin Atkinson nervously came out on “impulse” during equal marriage debate in his state in April.

Baroness Barker’s speech in full:-

My Lords, I declare an interest. Many years ago, I had the great good fortune to meet someone. She and I have loved each other ever since—that is, apart from the occasional spectacular argument, usually about driving or DIY. As the slogans on the T-shirts used to say, it happens in the best of families. It was therefore with great relief that I read the letter from the Bishop of Salisbury to the noble Lord, Lord Alli, in which he said:

“Whilst marriage is robust and enduring, what is meant by marriage has developed and changed significantly”.

There have been many changes to what constitutes marriage over the years. In 1836, there was the change that allowed civil marriage. In 1949, there was the change that made 16 the minimum age for marriage. Those changes came about because of campaigns that were run by minorities and resisted by majorities for a very long time, but they are not changes that would now be overturned.

What we are doing today does not undermine any existing or future marriage. It extends the status of marriage to gay men and lesbians who want to make a public commitment in the presence of their families and friends, and sometimes their co-religionists. It reflects the wishes of those people who today do not want just to tolerate lesbians and gay men; they want to celebrate and support them as people in their own right.

Some noble Lords say that allowing gay people to get married is unfair because it leaves other sorts of relationships, such as those of siblings, without the same legal rights as those who choose a marital status. If enabling gay marriage will be unfair to another relationship, such as that of two sisters, then existing marriage laws are unfair. I think we all understand that relationships which adults enter into voluntarily are wholly distinct from relationships which are determined by consanguinity. If family members could become civil partners, it would be really easy for a bullying parent or sibling to force a member of their family into a relationship simply in order to protect property. I do not think that any of us want to legislate for that.

A great deal has been made about the issue of a conscience clause for registrars and other public servants. I grew up in a time and a place when discrimination in public services on the grounds of religion was not uncommon. It caused resentment and divided communities. The idea that public servants should decide, according to their personal beliefs, who does and does not receive a public service is just wrong. Taxes are levied on a non-discriminatory basis and services should be provided on a non-discriminatory basis.

Some opponents of this Bill say that we should not be addressing this—not when we have these huge economic difficulties. I disagree. Discrimination always comes with a price tag. In the United States, hundreds of employers—some very small; some of the biggest in the world, such as Nike and Microsoft—are assisting legal cases in support of gay marriage. These employers need to recruit and retain the most productive staff to make their businesses competitive—and that includes LGBT staff. These businesses want their gay employees to be able to focus on their jobs, not to be dealing with the inequality that means that they and their families always have to sit at the back of the bus. If those businesses have figured out that same-sex marriage is good for business, so should we.

This is a Bill about religious freedom. As somebody who was raised a Methodist, that is something that has been important to me all my life. No religion will be compelled to offer a same-sex marriage. On the same basis, it would be wrong to deny the rights of those religious organisations that wish to extend their fellowship to gay people and their families.

There is no impediment which would prevent this House from doing its job and subjecting this Bill to the high standards of scrutiny that it would apply to any other. In doing so, Members of your Lordships’ House will think long and hard, as they always do, about what is right and in the best interests of our society.

I and many of my colleagues on these Benches look forward to joining with noble Lords from all parts of the House to ensure that gay people and their families are afforded the dignity and respect that others take for granted, and that families, faiths and communities can grow stronger together as a result.