Examination of Witnesses

Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 2:53 pm on 12 February 2013.

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Benjamin Cohen and James-J Walsh gave evidence.

Q 205

Photo of Jimmy Hood Jimmy Hood Labour, Lanark and Hamilton East

Welcome gentlemen. For the record, would you please introduce yourselves to the Committee?

Benjamin Cohen: I am Benjamin Cohen. I started the Out4Marriage campaign. I am also the publisher of Pink News, a gay and lesbian publication. I want to say before James introduces himself that we are just volunteers. We are not a professional organisation. We are just a group of LGBT people who one day want to get married.

James-J Walsh:

I am James-J Walsh. I am the director of campaigns for Out4Marriage by night, and by day I work in the voluntary sector in another role.

Q 206

Photo of Kate Green Kate Green Shadow Minister (Equalities)

Given that there is little legal difference between civil partnership and same-sex marriage, what do you see as the importance of legislation to allow same-sex couples to marry?

Benjamin Cohen: I think the gist of the last evidence you had pinpoints it: being able to have a religious marriage. Not everyone wishes to have a civil partnership. Also, it is about equality and about freedom. If the state has already said that it is okay for two people of the same sex to be in a relationship together, to live together, to be in a sexual relationship together—that they are equal and should have the same rights—they should have the same rights to get married. Also, I think personally that when we think about children being bullied in school, it is not possible to say to the people doing the bullying, “Gay people are the same as straight people”, if they do not have ultimately have the same rights to have the same relationship structures.

One of the first people to make an Out4Marriage video, when we started as a campaign, when people recorded videos on YouTube, were my grandparents. My grandparents support same-sex marriage because they would like me, one day, to be able to get married to my boyfriend in exactly the same structure and with the same status as they had, and my parents had.

James-J Walsh: There are also some technical aspects that relate to marriage internationally. If I decided to have a civil partnership and then decided to move to Portugal, where same-sex marriages are legal, my civil partnership would not be recognised there. So there are some international differences that we need to be aware of, as well, in playing this out.

Benjamin Cohen: As has also been illustrated, the issue of transgender people and the fact that their marriages are taken away and they are forced to have civil partnership if they go through gender reassignment is something that the Civil Partnership Act 2004 did not really consider.

The other thing is that society has moved on a lot since the introduction of civil partnerships. Many people were happy when they were introduced and referred to them as gay marriages, but they were not marriage. The word “marriage” is really important. If and when me and my boyfriend decide to get married, I am not going to bend down on one knee and say, “Please will you be my partner” or “my civil partner”. Doing that would sound like opening a firm of accountants or lawyers. I do not want to have a partner; I want to have a husband, and that is what I would ask.

Q 207

Photo of Stuart Andrew Stuart Andrew Conservative, Pudsey

Are you happy with the Bill as it is at the moment or do you think that this discussion that we have had about civil partnerships being extended to heterosexual couples needs to be debated further?

James-J Walsh: Out4Marriage believes this Bill is not about LGBT rights, primarily. It is about religious freedom. If we are in a state that believes that you can be of religion or without religion, then civil partnerships need to be thought about clearly, because some people in this world do not want to have a religious marriage ceremony. We do not represent them, but the ethic—the principle—sticks for us, that as a group, if there is one set of rules for the LGBT community, where they can have the non-religious commitment—

Benjamin Cohen: Or they choose not to get married and call it a marriage.

Actually, it would be a bit perverse if gay people suddenly got more rights than straight people—or maybe it would be quite a nice compensation for the fact we have been discriminated against for hundreds or thousands of years—and then suddenly had more rights. But it would seem a bit odd if same-sex couples can choose between a civil partnership and a marriage, given that civil partnerships were created as a legal fudge because people were not convinced that it would not go through Parliament if it was called a marriage—although it really was a marriage, it just was not called that and did not have the same rights.

While we have not been campaigning for civil partnerships, if they were to be retained I can understand. Most LGBT can understand that some heterosexual people may wish to have them. In some countries,  among the straight community—not among the gay community—civil partnerships and their equivalents are becoming more popular than marriage.

Q 208

Photo of Ben Bradshaw Ben Bradshaw Labour, Exeter

Can I commend both of you for using the word “freedom” in your opening sentences, which is a refreshing change from the way that this debate is often framed?

Mr Walsh, you talked about rights in other countries. Am I not right in saying that that depends on that other country’s law and jurisdiction? Do you actually have evidence that shows that if I were in a same-sex marriage my husband and I would enjoy more rights in another country that we currently do or would in a civil partnership?

A question to both of you on the issue that we have asked other witnesses about; how do you feel about the change in the consummation provisions in the Bill as it stands?

James-J Walsh: Coming back to the question specifically asked to me, and I know that Ben has also indicated that he would like to reply to that too, it is my understanding that in terms of those countries that have already legalised same-sex marriage, a person who has then emigrated to Portugal, for instance, enjoys full legal marriage entitlement. Portugal is very strange in that it does not recognise civil partnerships, but does recognise same-sex marriage so there is a difference and we would have greater rights internationally.

Benjamin Cohen: Israel, a country which does not allow same-sex marriage to be performed within the country, does recognise it if it is performed outside. However, it does not recognise civil partnership, and there are many Jewish couples who might want to immigrate to Israel, aliyah might want to, but their marital status is not recognised if they have come from here. That is simply because they cannot translate the words “civil partnership”. Couples from Israel, or British couples that wish to go and move there and have the tax status and other statuses there, have to go to Canada or other countries that offer same-sex marriage because that country will recognise it. There is quite strong evidence, and it seems logical that if a country such as France has same-sex marriage—and it is likely that they will introduce it—they also have civil pacts that have fewer rights than a same-sex marriage will have, so I do not know how they would approach a British civil partnership. Would they consider them to be a same-sex marriage, or would they instead consider them to be a civil pact with considerably less rights than a same-sex marriage?

James-J Walsh: Consummation—the heterosexual community seems obsessed with the way that we consummate our marriages. Consummation is different for every LGBT couple. There is no need to be sexually active or inactive in a relationship and I do not think we should be legislating for that. From my point of view, when we have weddings that are carried out last-minute because someone is on their deathbed, they are not consummated, so we do have some sort of precedent in law. The whole issue in itself needs to be put to one side, because I think what people do in the privacy of their own bedroom is their own business.

Q 209

Photo of Ben Bradshaw Ben Bradshaw Labour, Exeter

Does that mean you prefer the Bill as it originally stood, or in its changed form, post-consultation on this issue?

James-J Walsh: As an organisation we have not come to a viewpoint on that one.

Benjamin Cohen: To be honest, I am not sure why everyone is so obsessed with it—

Photo of Ben Bradshaw Ben Bradshaw Labour, Exeter

It will not stop them talking about it up there.

Benjamin Cohen: No of course, but I think, for example, there are indications that Church of England clergy could potentially enter into a same-sex marriage as long as it was celibate. What happens to them? If you had to consummate the marriage they would not be able to be married.

Q 210

Photo of David Burrowes David Burrowes Conservative, Enfield, Southgate

In terms of freedom and issues around freedom of conscience, regarding Pink News, Ben, do you think your forum should be free to allow for the fomenting of hostility, hatred and accusations of homophobia towards people like me who believe marriage is between a man and a woman and that there is a distinctive value of it?

Benjamin Cohen: Sorry, could you repeat that? It cut up.

Photo of David Burrowes David Burrowes Conservative, Enfield, Southgate

In terms of people like me, who share my view, should people be free just to—

Benjamin Cohen: To disagree with someone who opposes their right to get married?

Q 211

Photo of David Burrowes David Burrowes Conservative, Enfield, Southgate

No, please disagree, but on Pink News, as an example, there has been a fomenting of hostility, hatred and abuse.

Benjamin Cohen: People are entitled to respond to what an MP says in their own way, but I do not think that is what we are encouraging.

Q 212

Photo of David Burrowes David Burrowes Conservative, Enfield, Southgate

No, I would not say you are. Do you think there are any ways that need to be additional to the Bill to protect the freedom of conscience for people to uphold their views?

Benjamin Cohen: I think that people are able to say, and I cannot see anything in the Bill that says that you or anyone would have to agree to people having same-sex marriage. People talk a lot about their marriage being redefined. It is not redefining marriages that already exist. I live next door to a Catholic church. If I get married as a result of the Bill, that does not actually affect the people who go and celebrate in that church; it does not affect what the priest, who lives opposite me, has to do; it does not affect anyone else, really, other than other same-sex couples.

There is still the freedom—I think people have absolute liberty—to disagree with the Bill and to have their own views on homosexuality or anything else, because we live in a tolerant, liberal society where people can have different views. I am Jewish. Some of my friends are very orthodox Jews. They would disagree with me driving on a Saturday, but that does not stop them being friends with me, and my disagreeing with their view that you cannot drive on a Saturday does not stop me having respect for them.

Q 213

Photo of David Burrowes David Burrowes Conservative, Enfield, Southgate

I appreciate that, but you can distinguish between people’s views in relation to homosexuality and their views in relation to marriage.

Benjamin Cohen: What do you mean?

Photo of David Burrowes David Burrowes Conservative, Enfield, Southgate

In that someone’s upholding a traditional view of marriage may not mean that they are homophobic or that they have views against homosexuality. You accept that there are distinctions?

Benjamin Cohen: Those views presumably would mean that one would believe in freedom, such as the freedom for people to decide whether or not to get married, or for religious ministers to be able to perform marriages. I do not understand how one can say, “As it happens, I am not homophobic and have nothing against homosexuals but they can’t get married,” because that really means, “Well, I like them and they can do whatever they want but they can’t have the same rights that I have.” Jewish people used to have fewer rights; black people used to have fewer rights; all sorts of people used to have fewer rights, because of who they were and for things they could not help. To try to argue, “I am not homophobic but I do not believe that you should be able to have the right to do something,” is something I cannot quite understand.

Q 214

Photo of David Burrowes David Burrowes Conservative, Enfield, Southgate

So you would say that I am homophobic.

Benjamin Cohen: I am not saying you are. I am not going to have an argument with you now about whether or not you are.

Q 215

Photo of David Burrowes David Burrowes Conservative, Enfield, Southgate

More to the point, in terms of the motivation behind the Bill, do you see issues of acceptance—a state of understanding in relation to homosexual relationships—as a primary reason, or do you see the issue of establishing legal rights as a prime reason?

Benjamin Cohen: I think it is about rights. It is also about making sure that people in same-sex relationships are equal in society. Of course, you stood for election on a Conservative party manifesto that promised to consult on that, which is perhaps one reason why some LGBT people might have voted Conservative. I think that the Bill is doing both of the things that you say. It is trying to address rights, but it is also, I would hope, trying to foster a different sort of society, where a young person growing up today, who is discovering that they are gay, will realise that they will grow up and be able to have exactly the same rights and life as their parents or grandparents, rather than having suddenly to go down a different path, that of civil partnerships.

James-J Walsh: From my point of view we need to be very clear that this is about rights and about balancing rights, and that there is a way that someone who has a traditional view of marriage can disagree with same-sex marriage that allows for everyone to be happy. It is the way in which that person disagrees that is often the cause of thoughts of homophobia. If you were to present yourself in the incitement to hatred way of disagreeing with same-sex marriage, yes, you would be homophobic. If you were to say, “My religious convictions mean that I cannot accept same-sex marriage, but peace be with you,” that is perfectly acceptable to us.

Benjamin Cohen: I have very strong religious beliefs that it is wrong to eat bacon and pork, but I do not stop my boyfriend doing that because he is not Jewish. Having your own religious beliefs is something separate. Most gay people would have respect for people who have religious reasons, such as what scripture says, but  this issue is also about civil rights, and about civil as well as religious marriage, and the state’s role is slightly different from religion’s role.

Q 216

Photo of Stephen Williams Stephen Williams Liberal Democrat, Bristol West

When you were putting together your campaign, Out4Marriage—I recorded a video for it in the early days—did you have ground rules? To follow on from what David Burrowes was asking, did you set yourself ground rules for what the tone of the campaign would be? Was it to be a positive campaign or a negative campaign?

James-J Walsh: We only ever really wanted a positive campaign. It works better politically and on social media, which is our main function, and it works better as key messaging out there, so actually it was the “I’m coming ‘Out4Marriage’”, which was our slogo, if you like, that we chose because it is actually a positive and accepting statement, rather than “I hate X because he doesn’t like me because I’m gay.” That just does not work.

Benjamin Cohen: We really did just want something positive. The reason we started it was, if I am honest, I do not think that up until the time we started that last year there were really any positive campaigns. What we were seeing were very negative campaigns led by religious organisations and other organisations that campaigned against marriage. What we were not hearing was normal people—well, MPs; I would consider you to be normal as well—but people like my grandparents. Also, celebrities: we have had all sorts of celebs and business leaders recording videos for us. It was just to show that this is a positive thing and it positively impacts on society, and that society is better if everyone has the same rights and everyone is able to enter into stable relationships.

Q 217

Photo of Stephen Williams Stephen Williams Liberal Democrat, Bristol West

What sort of feedback have you received from the public, gay or otherwise?

James-J Walsh: It depends. The most liked video of a non-celebrity is two mums from down in Deptford, near where I am living, and they speak about their gay-couple friends that they know. Their kids go to school together. It is a beautiful video. They are both heterosexual women. They are talking about, actually, that they do not understand, as a heterosexual couple who have never really been involved in the gay world, why their two friends who are great dads to their adopted kids cannot have the same rights as them and why they cannot, when they tell their kids about growing up in a family structure, describe it in the same kind of way. That is actually our most shared video, followed by Ben’s grandparents as well.

Actually, the argument around the age difference and the perception around it being for younger persons—that younger people tend to be more accepting towards same-sex marriage: I tend to disagree. Older people as well, once you have the conversation with them and you talk about the tradition and the value of marriage—things that they actually perceive as being a positive and good institution—they really come round to that point of view, and that is quite nice as well.

Benjamin Cohen: Especially if they would like their grandchildren to get married while they are still alive and not have to wait 20 or 30 years for the law to be changed.

Q 218

Photo of Stephen Williams Stephen Williams Liberal Democrat, Bristol West

Finally, our next set of witnesses is from the Coalition for Marriage. No doubt, you studied its campaign tactics. Were there any you thought that you could successfully have deployed, or were there campaign tactics that you specifically rejected and that they have deployed?

Benjamin Cohen: There were factors also about money. Out4Marriage is just a group of individuals who have used social media and used being able to get stories in the newspaper—videos with Hugh Grant and Richard Branson have got us quite a lot of media coverage—but that is all we have had. We have had no money put into this. So yes, if we had had tens of thousands of pounds to throw at leaflet campaigns all around the country, for people to write to their MPs, to have polls, to have a petition on a website, and hundreds of thousands of people signing up, some because they are encouraged to at school: what the Catholic Education Service has started—it is not something to laugh at.

So there are instances, but it is a different argument. We are in a different position, and it is one of the reasons why the LGBT community’s lobbying has not been quite so loud: we are in the very fortunate position that the Government are actually doing a lot of this for us. This is happening because the coalition Government wished to do this. It now has support across the House. So it is a very different position. We are merely cheerleaders, saying, “We think this is good.” We do think there are some things that could be, maybe, a bit different, but we broadly agree with it, and that is obviously very different from organisations that are specifically campaigning against something that the Government have already said they wish to do.

James-J Walsh: It is also worth noting that actually in a straight race down between “Yes to traditional marriage,” or “Yes to same-sex marriage,” we were never going to win in numbers terms. It would never have happened. The infrastructure around the LGBT community is nowhere near as developed as that around the religious community. We have about 300 LGBT organisations in the UK, and most of them operate on less than £10,000 a year. There are a couple of large charities—Stonewall is the biggest—but they do not bring in anywhere near the same amount of cash as even a handful of the Catholic charities, for instance.

One thing that has been heartening throughout this campaign is the change of position of the Catholics on family values and LGBT parenting. We had a statement from the Catholics last week, or the week before last, in which they stated that they see LGBT parents as a positive thing. That came after they closed down their adoption centres because they had to support LGBT adoptees. That shows that this sort of issue does progress, and it progresses in the religious community as well. Give it time, and I am sure that more of the mainstream religions will opt in.

Benjamin Cohen: We have had bishops, canons, deans and lots of Church of England vicars recording videos, helping us and supporting us. I think that the tide is turning, in a religious sense.

Q 219

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Transport), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights)

Earlier in your submission, you said that this is about balancing rights. I just want to get your opinion on the quadruple lock. The Government say that they will make sure that religious organisations that do not agree with same-sex marriage will not be  obliged to marry couples of the same gender. The same problem has occurred—you have probably heard this from other Members—in relation to teachers and registrars. Again, the issue for many of them is that they feel that their beliefs may suffer as a result of the change of legislation. I am keen to get your opinion. Do you support the protections for those people and organisations?

Photo of Jimmy Hood Jimmy Hood Labour, Lanark and Hamilton East

Before you answer, we have received some intelligence. There is going to be a vote at 4 o’clock, so if you could take two minutes to answer the question, it would be appreciated.

Benjamin Cohen: Broadly, we do support it. There are some concerns about individual Church of England ministers who want to perform same-sex marriages, but are not able to do it. But broadly, we support it.

James-J Walsh: Definitely, it is our position that no religious minister should be forced to perform a same-sex marriage. I do not think anyone would want to have someone celebrating their marriage who is forced into doing it. That seems a very violent way of celebrating a union. So I think that it is all hot air and smoke, to be honest.

Q 220

James-J Walsh: Teachers need to be professional in the way that they approach teaching. I went to a very religious school. At the age of 17, I was pulled out of my class, taken to the headmaster’s office and told that I was a disappointment because in the yearbook I wrote the words, “So what if I am?” as the headline at the top of my page. I got marched to the headmaster’s office, and they were going to expel me. They were thinking about it. This was back in 2000. I think that teachers need to be very wary when they take on a loco parentis role. They need to be careful about the ways in which they approach things. They should not be forced to say, “I believe in same-sex marriage,” if they do not, but they need to be mindful that we support the rights of all individuals in the world.

Benjamin Cohen: Bear in mind that some of the children there may be the children of same-sex couples, so you do not want them to question the validity of their parents’ relationship. This is civil marriage, so registrars should be performing it.

Q 221

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Transport), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights)

So if a school or a local authority were to pressure teachers or registrars to do something that they do not agree with, you would object to that.

Benjamin Cohen: Do you mean civil registrars?

Benjamin Cohen: That is slightly different, because civil marriage is slightly different to religious marriage.

Photo of Jimmy Hood Jimmy Hood Labour, Lanark and Hamilton East

We are getting close to 4 o’clock. Are there any other questions from Committee members? If there are no more questions, I thank you for giving evidence.

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.