Comment: The part that PinkNews is proud to have played in the equal marriage debate

PinkNews logo surrounded by illustrated images including a rainbow, unicorn, PN sign and pride flag.

As the campaign for the introduction of same-sex marriage in England and Wales draws to a close, PinkNews will be publishing a series of histories of the debate from a variety of different angles. This history, by PinkNews founder Benjamin Cohen reflects on the role that this publication has played in fighting to change the law. From its initial acceptance of the civil partnerships status quo, through to securing the support of Nick Clegg, David Cameron and Ed Miliband to change the law on marriage and launching the Out4Marriage campaign.

PinkNews was born in 2005, just before the first civil partnerships were held, ceremonies that the tabloids termed ‘gay marriages’. Today, I am ashamed when I look back at our 2005 coverage when PinkNews ran headlines such as ‘Elton John and David Furnish marry in one of England’s first gay ceremonies’. Their ceremony was not a marriage at all, but it was not clear then and it is still unclear now, what the verb for entering into a civil partnership ceremony is. I tried to use ‘join’ as a potential replacement to ‘marry’ in the same article, writing: “Sir Elton and Mr Furnish are among 700 gay couples joining in a civil partnership across the country today.” However, even today, such a turn of phrase sounds messy. Every other type of couple marry, they don’t ‘join’ or ‘partner’ themselves up, but that is the situation we were left by the last government and those that campaigned for the introduction of civil partnerships.

During the opening years of PinkNews, we towed the party line. We accepted that civil partnerships were a considerable improvement in the role of LGB but not T people in British society and if I am honest, given that Stonewall and the then government were in no hurry to change the status quo, I felt that equal marriage wasn’t worth worrying about. It seemed more important to question the introduction of the sexual orientation regulations and the single Equality Act that led the way to gay people being protected from discrimination in the provision of goods and services.

In 2006, we started to think differently. The High Court rejected an appeal by a lesbian couple, Sue Wilkinson and Celia Kitzinger. They were legally married in Canada but the courts in the UK would only recognise them as a civil partnership. It was clear that while we in the UK thought we had equality, other countries had more equality than us. However, no one, with the notable exception of Peter Tatchell really raised this issue. Politicians of all flavours (except the Greens) and gay charities such as Stonewall continued to act as if civil partnerships were really the best that we in the LGBT community could hope for.

For me personally and for PinkNews too, the call action happened following the Californian court ruling in June 2008 to allow same-sex marriage within the state. What followed of course was the public referendum on a constitutional ban on gay marriage, Prop 8. My then partner and I travelled to San Francisco to experience the drama, attend the rallies and share in the crushing defeat of the community. Seeing equality in marriage briefly introduced and then so dramatically denied to the LGBT community made me realise that simply waiting for change to naturally occur in my own country was not good enough.

Shortly after Prop 8, a new, straight, female editor, Jessica Geen, arrived at PinkNews. When I appointed her, I didn’t realise how much she would change our agenda. Now there was someone editing PinkNews who could do something that her readers could not, marry the person she loved. Enthused by the stories from California, she poured her heart and soul into changing the status quo.

In an interview nearly a year after California banned gay couples from marrying, Stonewall’s Chief Executive Ben Summerskill told Jessica: “Well, the issue on marriage is that again, there are a lot of vocal supporters, but the thing they’ve always focused on is actually the real rights and entitlements. As I said, we know there are quite a lot of gay and lesbian people who wouldn’t want marriage, and some have explicitly said so.” He added: “Some people do [want marriage] and they’re perfectly entitled to express their views. We are one of many, many organisations but at the end of the day, in terms of our priorities, what we’ve always focused on, is absolutely practical hard outcomes which make a real difference to people’s lives … The reality is half the population already call civil partnerships marriage anyway.”

We couldn’t match the campaigning clout of an organisation with a £4m annual income, but we could use the power of our readership, now over 1 million people to advocate for change. The upcoming 2010 general election would give PinkNews an unparalleled opportunity to question political leaders. Rather than simply interview them ourselves, and have our questions perceived as those of a small collection of journalists, we opened up the access to our readership. Marriage or the lack of it, was the single biggest topic in questions to all three of the main party leaders, Gordon Brown, Nick Clegg and David Cameron.

Nick Clegg, the first to answer questions in February 2010, wrote:” Yes, I support gay marriage. Love is the same, straight or gay, so the civil institution should be the same, too. All couples should be able to make that commitment to one another.”

With that one question, PinkNews secured the backing of the leader of a major political party to change the law. It’s a question that I’m surprised other organisations in the gay rights world, who met with him, didn’t ask, and publicise although no one at the time realised that he would be appointed as Deputy Prime Minister in just a few months.

Mr Clegg’s answer also made it easier to ask David Cameron, the Conservative leader the same question. Although he wouldn’t quite give the assurance that Mr Clegg would give, he did write: “I want to do everything I can to support commitment and I’m open to changing things [marriage] further to guarantee equality.” Shortly after, the Conservative party ‘s Contract for Equalities promised to “consider the case for for changing the law to allow civil partnerships to be called and classified as marriage.”

Two leaders had told the readers of PinkNews that they supported marriage equality, but the other, Gordon Brown said no. He wrote: “The provision of ‘marriage’ as opposed to the provision of same-sex or heterosexual civil unions, is intimately bound up with questions of religious freedom.”

The general election saw a coalition formed between the Liberal Democrats and the Conservative party, something that PinkNews described as a ‘shot-gun civil partnership’. Jokes aside, we predicted and urged that Cameron and Clegg keep their promises on same-sex marriage.. Speaking to PinkNews in July, Conservative Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, who had previously spoken out against gay couples marrying said: “If the Conservatives and Liberals can get together in a national coalition and settle their differences, I don’t see why you can’t have gay marriage”.

Despite this political support that were some in the gay sector who claimed that it was not at all clear that LGBT people wanted to marry. So we asked our readers and 98% said they wanted the right to choose whether they got married. Just 2% said that civil partnerships were enough.

A PinkNews editorial, written by Jessica, described marriage as the “gold standard” for relationship recognition, a phrase more recently echoed by the Equalities Minister Maria Miller.

To further prove the support of equal marriage, PinkNews asked every LGBT group and organisation to give us their position. Every single one said they supported equality, although one, Stonewall declined to state its position.

During the Labour leadership election, we also asked every candidate for their view on same-sex marriage. The eventual victor, Ed Miliband, like Nick Clegg, first announced his support on PinkNews. Mr Miliband wrote: “‘Separate but equal’ is not good enough and’s own recent poll demonstrated the huge support in the LGBT community for a right to marry. The cruel consequence of the current compromise is trans people forced to divorce their partners before they could be legally recognised in their new gender. I want to see heterosexual and same-sex partnerships put on an equal basis and a Labour Party that I lead will campaign to make gay marriage happen.”

Weeks later, the Liberal Democrat party conference adopted equal marriage as official party policy, the policy itself citing Nick Clegg’s pledge to PinkNews readers.

However, the week after this historic vote, Stonewall’s Chief Executive Ben Summerskill still had not pledged the support of his organisation to campaigning to change the law. He told a Stonewall organised fringe event at Labour party conference that Stonewall would not be “jumped into” declaring a position on the issue and said there remained a “wide range of viewpoints” on the matter. He added: “Stonewall has never pretended to be a democratic member organisation. We have never said we speak for all lesbian, gay and bisexual people.”

The charity’s co-founder Michael Cashman wrote on PinkNews: “I’m disappointed to see Stonewall, the organisation I co-founded 21 years ago, fail to support genuine equality for same-sex couples. We must open up marriage to everyone, and we must do it now.”

Fellow co-founder Sir Ian McKellen told PinkNews that while marriage should not be the top of Stonewall’s agenda (he favoured its excellent work in schools), it should be on the agenda somewhere saying: “There’s no doubt about that, gay marriage should be on Stonewall’s agenda. Stonewall was founded to establish equality and this is a perfect example of an inequality that needs to be corrected.”

Just weeks later, following an open letter by dozens of campaigners published by PinkNews and a crucial survey of its donors and email database, Stonewall said that it would in the end, actively campaign for same-sex marriage. It seems odd to write this, but in many ways, from a PinkNews perspective at least, it was easier to secure the support of political leaders for changing the law than a gay charity. As Stephen Gilbert, the Liberal Democrat MP who proposed the party’s policy on the issue said at the time: “It should not be for me as an MP to lobby Stonewall to support gay equality, it should be for Stonewall to lobby me.”

With every organisation in the community on board, including Stonewall, with its undoubted record at effectively lobbying MPs and peers, we at PinkNews needed to consider what else we could do for the fight, having secured the support of those at the top of politics already. Peter Tatchell’s Equal Love campaign filed a compelling case at the European Court of Human Rights on the twin bans on same-sex marriage and straight civil partnerships and we decided to concentrate on the media.

As the government began its public consultation on same-sex marriage, it became clear to me that those who were opposed to same-sex marriage, principally the Coalition for Marriage, were winning the media battle. They rolled out bishop after bishop to condemn David Cameron’s policy but there were few credible voices to speak out in favour. We decided to come up with something very different, a managed cross-media campaign that would allow us to promote very specific messages about marriage equality that would be picked up by the mainstream media, not just be found on the pages of a website primarily read by LGBT people.

Out4Marriage, launched by PinkNews with the support of partners and volunteers featured videos by politicians, celebrities, religious leaders and ordinary people explaining why they supported changing the law. Videos included Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg; Home Secretary Theresa May; Minister for Equality and Culture Secretary Maria Miller; Labour Leader Ed Miliband, Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls, Shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper, Sir Richard Branson, the Virgin founder; the film star Hugh Grant; Stephen Fry; the actor Simon Callow; the illusionist Derren Brown; The Saturdays girl group; Jack Straw, the former Foreign Secretary; Caroline Lucas, the leader of the Green party; Lynne Featherstone, the Lib Dem Minister; Peter Tatchell, the gay rights campaigner; Lord (Chris) Smith, the first openly gay MP and Rabbi Ariel Friedlander and many, many more.

This campaign, funded on a shoestring reached every single national newspaper in the UK with the London Evening Standard exclusively publishing the transcript of each video on the afternoon that it was published. The campaign recently was named runner up in the Online Media Awards, behind The Times’ tax dodging exposé.

We journalists, found ourselves lobbied by ministers, calling on us to question why the government was at the time only proposing civil and not as it is now, opt-in religious same-sex marriage. It was in Downing Street that the prime minister told me that he personally backed such a move.

The Out4Marriage campaign, thanks to the amazing work of coders and the ingenious campaigning skills of James-J Walsh and Christopher Ward launched LobbyALord this spring. Primarily promoted on PinkNews, more than 15,000 personal messages have been sent using this website. These messages have been cited in debates and many of the peers have written back to PinkNews readers thanking them for the personal reasons they have given to change the law.

As we reach the end of five years of campaigning on the issue of marriage equality in England and Wales, we will add our support to the Scottish Equality Network’s long running campaign for equal marriage in Scotland .Out4Marriage will pick up the fight in Northern Ireland, soon to be the only part of the UK where gay couples will not be able to marry.

Confronting some in the community on the issue of marriage equality has lost PinkNews as many friends as it has made. I feel that we made the right call and that simply waiting for others to campaign on their own timescale was not the right thing to do for a publication with more readers than any UK gay related charity has supporters. I hope that in time others can accept this, pressurising people who aim to represent our community to support equality is not a personal slight but instead just doing what we perceived was the right thing.

The exceptional thing about the role of PinkNews in this campaign is that it would have meant absolutely nothing if David Cameron and Nick Clegg were not open to listening to the requests of our readers. We are lucky in this country that the leaders of the Labour party, Conservative party and Liberal Democrats listened to the arguments, considered the implications and decided that marriage should be open to everyone, regardless of their sexuality. That is something we should all be proud of and I’m so grateful that the support of our readers over eight years meant we were respectable enough to ask the questions on our readers behalf.