The gay rights debate should avoid political point scoring
Alex Glasner’s piece last week, suggesting that gay Toryism was oxymoronic, has caused a stir. It’s an example of where party political tribalism sometimes seems to obscure rational thinking – surely the debate about LGBT rights in 2012 can move beyond petty party political point scoring?
Glasner is right that Labour should be proud of their record on gay issues and, up until the past few years, the Conservatives have, to say the least, had a poor record on the issue. And, in fairness, to the Liberal Democrats, their record on gay rights has been light years ahead of both Labour and the Tories – committing to a gay rights policy as early as 1975.
Of course, the truth is never as straightforward as that viewed through a party political prism. The last government should be congratulated for their record on gay rights – abolishing the repellent Section 28, equalising the age of consent and introducing civil partnerships. David Cameron was right to say that the UK was “more open at home and more compassionate abroad and that is something we should all be grateful for.”
But Labour’s record on the issue was hardly one of relentless and rapid progress. It’s worth remembering that gay people were only allowed to serve in the military after an intervention from the ECHR, civil partnerships only happened after eight years and, before Lord Alli’s important amendment, blessings in religious premises were not allowed. The blood ban also remained in place. And there are still some Labour refuseniks about on equal marriage – with some arguing, wrongly, that civil partnerships are enough.
That is not to diminish the achievements of the last Labour government or to suggest that the Conservatives do not have many reasons to be sorry for their past record on gay rights. Only a handful of Tories voted to legalise homosexuality in 1967 – amongst them were Nicholas Ridley, Enoch Powell and Margaret Thatcher. The introduction of Section 28, and opposition to a number of pieces of gay rights legislation opened a gulf between Conservatives and LGBT people. David Cameron was right to apologise for his party’s record on gay rights.
It is unfair, though, to judge today’s Conservative Party on its actions of more than a decade ago. The parliamentary Conservative Party has more openly gay and lesbian MPs than Labour and the Liberal Democrats put together. And it is a Conservative led government that is pushing ahead with legislation on equal marriage, lifting the ban on gay and bisexual men giving blood and erasing past convictions for consensual homosexual acts. This government can be proud of the steps it has taken on gay rights.
And, as we argued in ‘What’s In A Name’, conservatives should begin to realise that the fundamental case for equal marriage is actually a conservative one. Whereas some on the left have opposed equal marriage because they regard marriage as “old fashioned and patriarchal” (Peter Tachell, 1998), conservatives should support equal marriage because they believe in the power of marriage – that it is good for individuals, society and communities. Married people tend to be healthier, wealthier and happier than cohabiting or single people and the “commitment device” of marriage means that married couples stay together for longer.
We also found that the ‘conservative’ case for marriage is particularly relevant for gay people. Equal marriage could play an important role in tackling the mental health problems and issues with high risk behaviour that continue to affect the gay community.
Traditional conservative thinking would suggest that allowing gay people to marry would help to address both of these issues by encouraging commitment and stability. Rather than conservatism being opposed to gay rights, as Alex Glasner suggested, the most totemic piece of gay rights legislation is a fundamentally conservative reform.
That is why it’s so crucial for the Conservatives that they press ahead with equal marriage. The progress of recent years has, at least, meant that gay people are prepared to listen to what the Conservatives have to offer. U-turning on equal marriage would destroy that relationship and be hugely damaging to the project of Tory modernisation. As well as alienating gay voters, a u-turn would also alienate those moderate voters that the Conservatives need to win over to win an election.
And the central message of equal marriage is that, following on from the reforms of recent decades, gay people are fundamentally equal members of society. Leading figures across business and politics – with political views defined less and less by their sexuality. Gay people’s politics are no longer based on the concept that being gay is to be part of a persecuted minority, who should always join a rainbow alliance with other groups. That view is outdated and wrong.
The leadership of all political parties support equal marriage. Throwing around outmoded descriptions of politicians based on the actions of their party decades ago is unedifying and wrong. Put simply, both politics and gay culture have moved on from the tribalism that Glasner describes. There is now a political and societal consensus in favour of LGBT rights. And that can only be a good thing.