I will vote for the bill, because I think that it is underpinned by tolerance, recognition and respect. It is about the fundamental human right to love and to express that love publicly, in a declaration of commitment that cannot be dismissed as second class or second best.
The bill is a mark of how far we have come on the issue of equality in a relatively short period of time. It is only a few decades ago, in my own lifetime, that homosexuality was criminalised, and people lived double lives and lived in fear of exposure, blackmail and sometimes even imprisonment. We should never forget that such hazards remain very real in other countries where human rights are denied on the basis of sexuality and often gender.
The language that is used by a small number of people outside the chamber in the wider debate on equal marriage has on occasion become polarised. We have heard the preposterous allegation that gay unions are tainted, and similarly we have seen those who have asked for reassurances in respect of their religious beliefs dismissed as homophobic. That language is not helpful, and I do not think that it reflects where the majority of the population stand on the issue.
I support equal marriage in principle, but one of my reasons for speaking in the debate is personal. Like many people of my generation, I did not, when I was growing up in a very religious Roman Catholic family in a small Scottish town, know anyone who was gay. My first encounter with homosexuality was in 1975, when Thames Television broadcast “The Naked Civil Servant” in which John Hurt portrays Quentin Crisp. Although it was a breakthrough in the sense that it was a sympathetic film, it gave a stereotyped and almost caricaturish portrayal of homosexuality as outrageous and eccentric: something that was outside the mainstream. However, within a few years of that film, everything had changed. Suddenly we all knew someone in our own family or wider circle of friends who was openly gay. In my case, my cousin and close childhood friend Cal came out at the age of 18, and through him I formed many firm friendships with gay men in particular that have lasted a lifetime.
It is perhaps not surprising, given my age and liberal outlook, that I was happy to accept my friend’s sexuality. What is more significant is that the older people in our family, who had very strong religious beliefs and grew up in a far more socially conservative age in the 1950s and 1960s, also accepted his sexuality. I am not saying that it happened overnight or that there was no awkwardness—or that there were not aunties whispering in private, “I just wish he’d meet a nice girl”—but there was public acceptance. There were joint invitations and Christmas cards, and family gatherings, and over time—as in many, many families—having a gay couple was utterly unremarkable. It was mainstream.
When my cousin Cal died of cancer at the age of 50 three years ago, we grieved as a family, and his male partner was treated with the same consideration and sympathy as any heterosexual partner who had suffered such a loss would have been. The family saw the devoted nursing care that he gave to Cal in his last weeks, and at the funeral he was the chief mourner.
That is not to say that the older members of the family, in their 70s, 80s and 90s, had abandoned in any way their strong religious beliefs, but, just as they said a silent prayer at the humanist funeral, they had reached an accommodation with the partnership that was based on love, and loyalty and basic human decency.
That is why I believe that those harsh voices speaking out against the legislation are not typical of lay members of the Christian church-going population. The vast majority of religiously observant people—even those in churches that are officially against equal marriage—will accept this change in practice, just as they have accepted their gay friends and family members. They judge people on the basis of their character, not their sexuality. They ask, “Are they kind, loyal, generous and fair?” and “Are they a good son or daughter?” That is what matters to most of us.
I welcome the fact that the Equality Act 2010 will be amended to further protect individual celebrants who do not wish to carry out same-sex marriage but who belong to a religious body that has opted to do so. That is about tolerance. Just as I do not believe that those with religious views opposing equal marriage should dictate the law, I do not believe that the law should impose my values on religious denominations.
I conclude by reflecting on Margaret McCulloch’s comment when she spoke for the committee earlier that the committee would “agree to differ”. As we move forward, I think that society as a whole will agree to differ, and in doing so they are agreeing to respect difference: difference in sexuality. That is a mark of our tolerance.
This piece of legislation is about the journey that we have made as a society. Although we have heard a lot today about marginalisation and alienation, and people feeling bullied and excluded, my personal experience is that the bill will bring the law into line with real life and real families. We are actually a much more tolerant society than this debate has sometimes given the impression we are.