As the UK celebrates the 10-year anniversary of legalizing same sex marriage, Chamber hosted a special episode of our ‘Political Sandbox’, reflecting on this anniversary, the progress we have seen over the last ten years, and the progress we are still hoping to see. Chamber was delighted to welcome, Lynne Featherstone, the Minister for Equalities who was critical in pushing this legislation through, Paul Martin OBE, veteran LGBT+ rights campaigner and CEO of the LGBT Foundation and Ivor Caplin, former Labour Defence Minister and long-time patron of LGBT+ Labour.
The full interview can be seen here:
Same sex marriage: looking back
Reflecting on her role in pushing for same sex marriage legislation, Lynne Featherstone acknowledged that she was standing on the shoulders of giants, including Paul Martin and the LGBTQ+ campaigners who came before her. Featherstone also recognizes the important groundwork that was laid by the previous Labour government, particularly in regards to civil partnerships.
“Labour were brilliant with civil partnerships. They were a major step forward, and I could never have done what I did, if labour hadn’t done what they did.”
Ivor Caplin also noted the role of the Labour party in building momentum with legislation that advanced LGBT+ equality in the UK such as abandoning Section 28, and equalising the age of consent. While he was disappointed not to have been able to introduced same-sex marriage under Blair or Brown, he acknowledged that “we were also able to at least start that process with civil partnerships.”
Featherstone revealed her impetus for pushing ahead on same-sex marriage with such vigour: “The decision that I made to push ahead with same sex marriage was about three days into the coalition in 2010. When I decided, basically because of Michael Heseltine and Andrew Adonis and the advice they gave me, that if you want to do something when you’re a minister… then you need to drive it forward and trust your civil servants.”
Reflecting on this time, Paul Martin acknowledged that, just as there was a political split, there was a split that existed among LGBT+ rights organisations at the time: “some of the LGBT organisations were not necessarily in favour, and I remember being in some very difficult meetings where some organisations who you would assume would be pro and would be for same-sex marriage, were actually against or at best ambivalent… so it took some time for the LGBT+ community to coalesce around a specific forward strategy.”
LGBT+ rights today
Martin was keen to note however, a key difference between the cross-party support for same-sex marriage ten years ago, and the current political climate.
“The difference between then and now is that actually, you had a Minister for Equalities that stood up and faced off the bullies… you had some conviction politics there, we built up a broader coalition… but also, we had cross-party support in the main… what we don’t have now, is any leader of any political party, apart from Nicola Sturgeon… that is standing up and unequivocally saying pro-trans statements… Could I name any member of the cabinet who would be standing up and playing the role that Lynne and Theresa May did? And I can’t,” says Martin.
Speaking on how he hoped this outlook would change with a Labour government, Ivor Caplin explained that he wanted to key things from a Labour government when it came to LGBT+ rights: “If it’s not already done, we will have to deal with conversion therapy. This is one of the most hideous things in the UK, and we have to get it sopped properly and forever.
“The other thing we need to be clear about is that trans rights are human rights. It was the Labour party who stood by gay men 40 years ago, it was the Labour party who stood by lesbians 30 years ago and today we have a duty to stand by the trans community.”
Echoing Ivor’s concerns around the hostile environment facing the trans community today, Featherstone noted that “by the time same sex marriage came in, everyone had gay friends, gay children, gay relatives, but the trans community is [much smaller]… so most people don’t know somebody who is a trans person. Of course if you love a trans person, a trans child or a trans partner… you see them as a human being, so there is a long long way to go. But it is vicious right now, it is beyond vicious and I’m very worried about the trans community because they have become a wedge issue.”
As we end LGBT+ history month it is important that advocates and activists in the UK look back and reflect on the lessons learnt in the gradual move towards greater LGBT+ equality. The same sex marriage example has a lot to teach us, and as many in the sector feel LGBT+ rights have been backsliding in recent years, Paul Martin was keen to stress the key takeaways from ten years ago:
“The reality is, that it does get better. So some of the debates around the age of consent, some of the horrific bile that was put out about LGBT+ people being parents and being able to foster and adopt, to operate in the armed forces, actually, every single one of those steps forward have been really hard fought and won. And they’ve only been won by building together coalitions, and having people that are senior enough in the establishment, speaking out. That’s the big thing that is missing, is having somebody who stands up and goes, ‘I am prepared to be counted on this issue’.”
These calls for true leadership in government on LGBT+ issues are not new, however they have in recent years been falling on deaf ears, with the abandonment of the LGBT Action Plan when Liz Truss was Minister for Equalities, and the continued delays to a ban on conversion therapy. However, with a potential change of government coming in the next 18 months, now is not the time to let up.