The journey from section 28 to same-sex weddings has been truly radical and rapid – it can be a model for progressive change
In Westminster this week they debated changing the law to allow gay people to marry each other. In parliament, they’re quite used to talking about gay people. In 1921, for instance, the House of Lords debated amending the sexual offences bill to include not only men but also “any act of gross indecency between female persons”. First to speak was the Earl of Malmesbury, who apologised for raising “a discussion upon what must be, to all of us, a most disgusting and polluting subject”. Eventually the Lord Bishop of Norwich withdrew his amendment, persuaded that such “vice” barely existed and that a criminal ban risked “advertising” and therefore increasing such horrors. Throughout the proceedings, the word “lesbian” was not spoken once.
We probably find that more amusing than appalling these days, gazing upon the dinosaur customs of the Downton era (even if, a century later, hereditary peers and bishops still have permanent seats in the Lords). But such attitudes are not ancient history: restrictions on gay people, if not phrased quite the same way, remained in place long into our own time. Consider that until 2003 no law prevented an employer sacking, or refusing to hire, someone on the grounds that he or she was gay. Or that as late as 2007, a landlord could evict or refuse to take on a tenant for the same reason. Or that gay men and women could not serve openly in the military until little more than a decade ago, just as the age of consent varied depending on whether you were attracted to people of the same or opposite sex. Yet here we are now, a few short years later, poised to take what gay rights activists regard as the last step towards full legal equality: access to marriage for everyone, regardless of whom they love.
Because we look back so rarely, we can miss how truly radical and rapid this change has been. Less than 25 years ago, a Conservative government could pass a section 28 that made “promoting homosexuality” illegal and banned any state school teaching “the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship”. Pause on that word – pretended – and consider that gay couples can now adopt children and that it is a Tory-led government that’s legislating for same-sex marriage. On this issue, the landscape has been utterly transformed in a single generation.
What explains such a quick and complete shift? Who can claim credit for what is perhaps the fastest, most thorough and relatively painless social revolution in our history?
The politicians would want us to start with them – and only a churl would deny the last Labour government credit for the raft of reforms it passed, culminating in the creation of civil partnerships which, we learned this week, have now been taken up by 105,000 people. While Tony Blair hedged and trimmed on so much, the necessity of compromise leaving this or that group feeling let down, it’s striking that on gay rights, Labour delivered completely.
On the right, something similar is at work today. David Cameron has abandoned so many of his early modernising promises – the huskies and hoodies discarded long ago – yet on gay equality he has stood firm. George Osborne is happy to play pantomime Scrooge, snarling at the workless poor, yet he remains open and inclusive on sexuality. Ditto his allies in the commentariat: rightwing on everything else, right-on on gay matters. It seems gay equality is the one modernising article of faith that can never be recanted. “It’s become a lodestar for ‘are you comfortable in the 21st century?’,” says Stonewall’s Ben Summerskill – for a politician to be hostile to gay equality is like admitting he doesn’t know how to use a computer. Which makes it all the more troubling for Cameron that he will have to rely on Labour votes to get equal marriage through the Commons.
But the near unity of today’s political class on gay rights cannot fully explain the transformation: it’s as much consequence as cause. Credit must also go to a change in popular culture. Even 40 years ago, gay men (though not lesbians) were visible in the British entertainment mainstream: think Danny La Rue or John Inman. But they were caricatures, never seen with partners, never to be imagined in real relationships. Over the last two or more decades – punctuated by a series of landmarks, whether the gay kiss on EastEnders, the lesbian kiss on Brookside or George Michael or Stephen Gately coming out – that has changed, steadily making what was once deemed abnormal, normal. In the US, attitudes to gay marriage are changing at dizzying speed – just as Modern Family, with a gay couple at its heart, has become one of America’s most-watched sitcoms. Bit by bit, what used to be “other” has become unthreateningly familiar.
The process has worked exponentially, change begetting change. The more gay people come out, the more straight people know gay people in their daily lives, the more ordinary it becomes, the more gay people come out. On it goes, in a virtuous circle. Summerskill cites civil partnerships as a prime example, dispelling some of the old stereotypes about promiscuity and sending a message to both straights and gays: “Once you’ve seen one of those ceremonies on your street you can be in denial no longer.”
Were politicians responsible for this shift or responding to it? Nick Herbert, the first openly gay man to be selected as a Tory parliamentary candidate, is surely right to believe the answer is both: “It sometimes happens that society is on the cusp of change when parliament steps in and helps the tide to break.”
But none of it would have happened without hard work. The gay rights campaign has been a story of phenomenal success, combining attention-grabbing direct action with quiet, behind-the-scenes lobbying – suffragettes and suffragists, as Peter Tatchell puts it, with himself firmly in the former camp. His OutRage! group regularly exposed the absurdity of discrimination: in 1992, he organised five same-sex couples to file for marriage licences at a London register office. Rejected 20 years ago, those couples will soon get their wish.
There are lessons here for other campaigning minorities. But not just them. This remarkable struggle has, says Tatchell, “helped everyone, gay and straight. It’s made Britain a kinder, more liberal society.” I think he’s right. When this last piece of legislation is passed, we should all raise a glass – celebrating a movement that has made our country a better, happier place to live.