Belfast Telegraph

Monday 22 December 2014

Why the battle for equality is not for gays to fight alone

Gay rights activist Peter Tatchell
Gay rights activist Peter Tatchell

Love, love, love, love, love, love, love, love, love/There's nothing you can do that can't be done/Nothing you can sing that can't be sung/It's easy/All you need is love/Love is all you need.

Well, that and a change in the law and, if you are religious, a sympathetic minister with no sexual hang-ups, which might not be easy to come across in these parts.

The weekend papers were full of Government plans to allow gay partnership ceremonies to take place and be blessed in churches. "This will never happen in a Catholic church," responded John Deighan, Parliamentary officer for the Catholic Church in Scotland. "People have to understand that teaching is handed down. It is not something malleable and can be changed."

Like the doctrine which used to cause me considerable concern; that you could roast in hell for all eternity for masturbation. Or the ban on condoms which Benedict XVI has recently lifted - not wanting to be the last Catholic left alive who believed any such thing.

Or the ban on women priests, which the soon-to-be-sainted John Paul II ruled was an infallible teaching and could never be changed until a US Jesuit theologian, Allen Dulles, drew attention to the fact that John Paul hadn't been speaking infallibly when he'd issued this decree. Nice one, that.

The change foreshadowed in briefings at the weekend by Liberal Democrat Equalities Minister Lynne Featherstone will be another stride forward for gay and lesbian couples.

But it's been a hard slog for gay rights campaigners to reach this point - and it isn't yet the end of the road.

Gay sex between men was decriminalised in England and Wales in 1967. But Scotland didn't follow suit until 1980. Northern Ireland had to wait a further two years. Similarly, the lifting of the ban on civil partnerships in religious settings will apply in the first instance only to England and Wales. We have a way to go.

It wasn't until 2002 that same-sex couples were granted the right to adopt children. Two years later, they won the right to register civil partnerships, except with regard to assisted reproduction: since then, there have been 26,000 same-sex civil partnerships. In 2008, same-sex couples were granted equality in relation to assisted reproduction, including donor insemination.

But there are other, and arguably more significant, changes underlying the proposed new legislation. In 2008, the EU Court of Justice ruled in relation to Germany that once a country puts same-sex partners 'in a situation comparable to that of spouses', it must grant the couples the same employment rights (on pensions, for example), the same immigration rights as married heterosexuals and so forth.

Some will see this as a slippery slope, others as inexorable, inevitable progress towards a more enlightened, equal society.

There is another aspect of the matter which hasn't received the attention some of us believe it deserves.

I have been living with my partner for more than 25 years. Neither she nor I has any intention of marrying. For all sorts of reasons, including ideological reasons, we are just not the marrying types and don't want defined under the law as 'wife' and 'husband'.

But neither are we content that couples who go through a marriage ceremony instantly acquire a legal status not conferred upon us. There are many thousands of couples across these islands in the same position. We want the same rights as gay couples - specifically the right to civil partnership.

The entitlement to equality of different-sex couples has been forcefully argued by gay rights campaigner Peter Tatchell and Outrage! - the group which he heads and which has played a key role in forcing the changes foreshadowed by Ms Featherstone.

Says Professor Robert Wintemute, the lawyer leading the Outrage! case to Europe: "The rights attached to civil marriage and civil partnership are identical, especially with regard to children donor insemination and surrogacy. There is no longer any justification to excluding same-sex couples from civil marriage and different-sex couples from civil partnership.

"It's like having separate drinking fountains, or beaches."

Equality in marriage law between gay and heterosexual couples is the norm in Argentina, Belgium, Canada, Iceland, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, South Africa, Spain, Sweden, five states in the US, plus the District of Columbia and in parts of Mexico. But equality for straight couples in civil partnerships has so far been achieved only in the Netherlands, South Africa and in Quebec in Canada.

Us heteros will be out in force at next year's Gay Pride marches looking for a bit of solidarity and support.

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