Yesterday was a bit of a write-off for me. The UK House of Commons was discussing the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill from 12.30pm right up to the vote at 7pm. I followed the entire thing as it happened.
Now this was already a done deal. Enough MPs had said in advance they were voting for the bill that we knew we’d won. It was simply a case of seeing how big our majority was going to be. But before that, for six and a half hours, over seventy MPs from all parties and levels and of all ages and backgrounds were given four minutes each to present their own reactions to the bill. It was the content of those four-minute speeches that really struck a chord as I was following this debate; the number of out gay and bisexual MPs who spoke movingly of what this bill means to them in particular. I have never been as proud of UK politicians as I was yesterday listening to some of them speak.
Steve Gilbert (LibDem), resplendent in rainbow striped tie, was first up.
“This historic legislation will end this discrimination but, more crucially, it will send a signal that this house values everybody equally in this country and that signal will deeply affect those people like me, who twenty years ago saw this house vote to equalise the age of consent. That was the first time that I had seen that there were other people like me, it was the first time I realised I was not alone, and it changed my life.”
Nick Herbert (Con) came next. He said, “Entering a civil partnership was the most important thing I have done in my life.” He continued:
When I was born, homosexual conduct was a crime. Not so long ago, it was possible to sack someone because they were gay. People did not dare to be open. Thank goodness so much has changed in my lifetime. That progress should be celebrated, but we should not believe that the journey is complete. I think of the gay children who are still bullied at school or who are fearful about whether their friends and families accept them. I think of sportsmen and women-vital role models-who still do not feel able to come out. The signal we send today about whether the law fully recognises the place of gay people in our society will really matter. Above all, I think of two people, faithful and loving, who simply want their commitment to be recognised, as it is for straight couples.
Margot James (Con), the first openly gay female Tory, said that, “Having been different for most of my life, I can assure you that being treated equal is very welcome indeed and we still have some way to go, not just in the area of gay people but in other areas.”
Stephen Williams (LibDem), the first openly-gay Lib Dem MP, came next:
I was born in 1966, when homosexuality was still without the law and a criminal offence. During my life we have seen much progress, but it has come in fits and starts and has not always been easy. Throughout my teenage years and my years at university, being openly gay was virtually impossible, because occasionally it could be a terrifying identity for an individual to have. I am thinking of the abuse that I received myself, and the far worse that I saw meted out to other people at school and university. What I say to colleagues on both sides of the House who oppose what we are trying to achieve today is please have some empathy with what your fellow citizens have been through. Equality is not something that can be delivered partially—equality is absolute.
Mike Freer (Con) is another MP in a civil partnership:
When I was elected to the House of Commons in 2010 it was almost the proudest day of my life. The proudest day of my life was when I entered into my civil partnership – six years ago with my partner of 21 years. Our civil partnership was a huge step forward and yet many argue that we should be content with our civil partnership – after all, it gives us the same legal protections as marriage.
But I ask my married colleagues, did you get married for legal protections. Did you get down on one knee and say, ‘Darling, please give me the protections marriage affords us’? Of course you didn’t.
Our civil partnership was our way of saying, this is who I love. This is who I am. This is who I wish to spend the rest of my life with. I am not asking for specialist treatment. I am just asking for equal treatment.
Stuart Andrew (Con), spoke of his youth: “In my adolescence I began to realise that I was gay. And being gay in a small Welsh village really was like being the only gay in the village.” Simon Hughes (LibDem) spoke of his religious beliefs: “I come to this debate as the person I am, with the complexities I have as an evangelical Protestant by faith and a Liberal since my teens. So these are not easy issues for me.”
Crispin Blunt (Con) was another MP who spoke movingly and eloquently about what it feels like to grow up gay.
What I understood [as a young man] was that there was something wrong with me that had, had to be to be mastered. And for three decades I managed that struggle. And the relief and happiness that comes from not having to do so any longer is due to the courage of others who fought for all of the measures advancing equality over the last five decades that are the precursors to today’s bill.
Finally, I admit, I had a lump in my throat when Iain Stewart (Con) spoke:
I often recall the day a few years ago when I finally plucked up the courage to tell my parents that I was gay. I began the conversation with the line “You know, I’m never going to be able to marry.”
Yesterday, the House of Commons voted by an overwhelming majority to confine that statement to the annals of history. The Ayes had it, the Ayes had it by 400 to 175. And across the land, we cheered.