My hon. Friend is right. It was a moment—a great stain on the House—when we turned on an important minority.
I have received many letters from people for whom this is all coming too soon. They say that the speed of change for lesbian, gay and bisexual rights is happening too abruptly for them to comprehend and that the country they live in, the traditions they live by and the people they live next to are transforming in ways that make them feel uncomfortable, upset and undermined. They are not homophobic or racist, they claim, but they say, “Not now, later”.
To some extent, I sympathise. As much as I would want Britain always to be the beating heart of radical and progressive change, it is not. At root, it has always had a small c conservative spine running through it—an instinct that change should always be organic, a need for change to be owned by the people, not imposed from up high. That instinct must be respected, and I will be respecting it when I vote for the Bill, because it commands the support of the country, because it respects religious freedom and tradition by permitting, rather than mandating, religious organisations to conduct the ceremonies, and because it is the end of an organic journey from criminalisation to equality for the gay community that began over half a century a go. This change is right and necessary and the time is now.
There are still those who say it is unnecessary. “Why do we need gay marriage”, they say, “when we already have civil partnerships?” They are, they claim, “Separate but equal.” Let me speak frankly: separate but equal is a fraud. It is the language that tried to push Rosa Parks to the back of the bus. It is the motif that determined that black and white people could not possibly drink from the same water fountain, eat at the same table or use the same toilets. They are the words that justified sending black children to different schools from their white peers—schools that would fail them and condemn them to a life of poverty. It is an excerpt from the phrasebook of the segregationists and racists. It is the same statement, idea and delusion that we borrowed in this country to say that women could vote, but only if they were married and only when they were over 30. It is the same naivety that led to my dad being granted citizenship when he arrived here in 1956, but being refused by landlords who proclaimed, “No blacks, no Irish, no dogs”.
The phrase entrenched who we were, who our friends could be and what our lives could become. It is not separate but equal, but separate and discriminated against, separate and oppressed, separate and browbeaten, separate and subjugated. Separate is not equal, so let us be rid of it. As long as there is one rule for us and another for them, we allow the barriers of acceptance to go unchallenged. As long as our statute book suggests that love between two men or two women is unworthy of recognition through marriage, we allow the rot of homophobia to fester and we entrench a society where 20,000 homophobic crimes take place each year and where 800,000 people have witnessed homophobic bullying at work in the past five years.
I am a Christian. I go to mass. I recognise how important this is.