Changing Attitude Sussex recently organised a meeting at which Peter Tatchell was the keynote speaker. His talk on Equal Marriage was electrifying. Over 150 people turned up to hear him and to judge by the sustained and thunderous applause he received, if there were any opponents of gay marriage there, he won them over. I think people responded to the sheer sincerity and dedication of the man. He spoke very powerfully, very movingly and very eloquently on the subject, and held the audience spellbound. You could hear a pin drop. He displayed an extensive and profound knowledge of all the issues and implications involved.
The National Secular Society recently awarded him the Irwin Prize and named him ‘national secularist of 2012’. For a national secularist of the year Peter makes a fantastic preacher! He argued forcefully and persuasively that love and compassion are at the heart of the matter and that they can only be promoted by fighting for social justice, equality and fairness for all. Equal Marriage is a human right.
At times he sounded positively Christ-like in his concern for the safety, happiness and wellbeing of others. The man is a living embodiment of Christ’s injunction to ‘love your neighbour as yourself’. His is a frugal, ascetic and self-sacrificial existence dedicated to making the world a better place for others. His home life has to be lived behind a secure reinforced door for his own personal safety. He is a workaholic, attempting to deal with an impossible number of cries for help from all over the world. He receives death threats on an almost daily basis and has been constantly subject to verbal attack and physical violence.
He has trod this hard path for over four decades, never wavering from his commitment to the struggle for human rights from his early days in the Gay Liberation Front (do you remember the gay ‘kiss-in’ at the Mary Whitehouse ‘Festival of Light’ of which Cliff Richard was also, disgracefully, a luminary?) through to the current ‘Equal Love’ campaign.
Although he spoke with such passion about love, about commitment to a lifelong partner and the importance of society recognising that same sex loving relationships are qualitatively identical to heterosexual unions, his main concern was to get the audience to appreciate the urgency of responding to the government consultation. Legislation will be influenced by the results of the consultation. You may be sure that the anti-gay organisations will be all geared up for it and we need to do the same. Simply go to ‘Equal Civil Marriage Consultation’ and fill in the form online. Please urge all your family and friends to do the same, whatever your views.
The day after Peter’s talk there was a media storm over remarks made by Roger Gale, conservative MP for Margate (Thanet North) and self professed devout Anglican. He wrote a nasty piece in his local rag about his opposition to gay marriage. I was asked to comment on it for BBC South East.
He opines: ‘marriage is not a term I wish to see hijacked in the false name of ‘equality’’. This is deliberately emotive and pejorative language. He constantly puts the word ‘gay’ in inverted commas and labels those opposed to his beliefs about marriage as ‘militant homosexuals’. This is a distortion. Many ordinary people believe in gay marriage because they believe in fairness and equal opportunity for all, and recent surveys show a majority in favour of the government’s proposals.
Gale engages in cheap scaremongering. He says the Equalities minister ‘will rewrite history and tradition to remove from the lexicon the words ‘husband and wife’. He suggests that Shakespeare and Milton and the Holy Bible will be rewritten also in a fit of ‘almost Stalinist political correctness’. This is laughable rabble rousing nonsense. Classic literature does not need to be rewritten just because social justice is advanced. Shakespeare is still Shakespeare even though we no longer have slavery or the denial of women’s right to vote.
His other scare tactic is to say that although the current consultation is only about civil marriage there will eventually be demands for the absolute right for gay couples to marry in Catholic or Anglican churches. This too is nonsense. As Gale himself points out, the law allows divorcees to marry in church, but still many churches will not permit this. This has been the situation for decades and yet there has been no campaign to force all churches to remarry divorcees. The situation with gay marriage will be exactly the same.
Indeed, Gale’s own marital state puts him in the same position as a gay couple. He says ‘as a divorcee I may not marry in my own church’ (Anglican). This is not true. Some Anglican priests would remarry him but he does not believe they are ‘real’ priests. The priests who would not marry him hold that marriage is a lifelong union of one man and one woman to the exclusion of all others, and that remarriage is adultery. Gale has taken advantage of a provision of the civil law which the section of the church he claims to believe in would not allow. This is exactly what gay people are asking for. Gale’s behaviour smacks of hypocrisy.
I have been reflecting on my encounters with these two men over this two day period. One is a convinced atheist who lives a life of self denial in order to make Christ’s teaching on love and compassion a reality for his fellow men and women, and who speaks with integrity and honour grounded in his own personal record of achievement. The other claims to be a Christian believer in ‘holy law’ which condemns both homosexuality and divorce. He is happy to stoop to tabloid style scaremongering to block gay rights while taking personal advantage for himself of the civil law on divorce even though he does not believe in it. ‘Woe to you scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites!’ said Jesus. There is no doubt in my mind who is the more Christian of the two. What do you think?!