Say it loud: we're proud of gay marriage

Here’s a tale of two worlds. Last week, Delaware and Minnesota became the latest states in the US to allow gay marriage. Twelve states and the District of Columbia now do so, and more are likely to follow. In the same week, a headline in the Kuwait Times screamed, “Over 200 homos and lesbians held in countrywide net cafe raids.”Fifteen countries have passed laws to allow gay marriage, including Canada, Spain, South Africa and — within the last month — France and New Zealand. As little as a decade ago in the US, a majority of the public opposed same sex marriage. Now opponents are in the minority. Rising acceptance of gay people, especially among the younger generation, is changing attitudes to gay marriage at an extraordinary rate.

Yet in Nigeria a bill to make it a crime for homosexuals to marry and for anybody to witness a gay marriage passed its first reading in the national assembly. Same-sex couples who marry would face up to 14 years in prison. Public displays of affection would be treated with more leniency — merely a 10-year jail term.

Uganda is worse still. Its bill introduces life imprisonment for homosexual behaviour, including for being in a gay relationship. “Aggravated homosexuality”, which includes acts committed by parents or HIV-positive people, is  awarded the death penalty. The measure is so extreme the president was forced to distance himself from it, but MPs still press for the bill to pass. These horrors aren’t confined to Africa or the Middle East. Russia’s parliament has just backed a bill that outlaws the “propaganda of homosexuality” (remember that?)

We’ve been used to defining conflicts of values by religion or ethnicity. But this cannot entirely explain the global divide. Russia sponsors intolerance, yet subscribes to the European Convention on Human Rights. Catholic countries such as Argentina have embraced gay marriage. Most Islamic countries are hostile to gay rights, but not all. Some Christian denominations accept gay people with love. Others preach hate. The former Anglican primate of Nigeria has said that homosexuality breeds bastards and hooligans.

Brave leadership is needed to counter such hatred and repression, and from church leaders as well as politicians. Britain has been able to take the strongest stand against human rights abuses around the world, not least because of our own record of embracing gay rights. Within my lifetime we have decriminalised homosexuality, lowered the age of consent, introduced civil partnerships and outlawed the incitement of hatred towards gay people.

Some have advised the prime minister that he should have stuck with that. The job’s done, they said; there’s no need to stir everyone up with gay marriage. But that is exactly what they said about the other measures. Just a few years ago, some MPs objected to civil partnerships, reflecting public hostility. One even grotesquely called the bill “a bugger’s muddle”. Less than a decade later, the measure enjoys overwhelming public support, including from the MPs who voted against it.

Opponents of the gay marriage bill have enjoyed disproportionate attention, despite the increasing desperation of their arguments. Charles Moore, a former editor of The Daily Telegraph, asserted that “equality . . . makes everyone very unhappy”. If only Dr Martin Luther King had known this.  Lord Dear told the House of Lords that gay marriage would “set back the climate of tolerance by decades”. On such absurd logic, black people would not have recovered from the abolition of slavery and women would regret being given the vote.

Far from being convincing arguments against the bill, such attitudes will be seen by many as evidence that that we need to walk past those who are standing in the way of this final measure to secure equality for gay people. Opinion polls consistently show the British public back gay marriage, with the strongest support among younger generations.

Debate about the gay marriage bill has focused on the division it has caused in the Conservative party and the anxiety it has caused the Catholic and Anglican churches. It is time for these institutions, to use Stonewall’s emphatic phrase, to get over it. Nobody is being forced to have a gay marriage. No church is being forced to conduct a gay marriage. No harm is being done by this measure.

But very great good will come of it, and not just because loving gay couples will be able to marry for the first time. The message that the mother of parliaments sends about our attitudes to gay people resonates far beyond Westminster and our own shores.

It is heard by the bullied children who still fear coming out at school. It is heard by the employees who still dare not be themselves at work. It is heard by the sportsmen and women who are only beginning to declare their sexuality to the young people for whom they are such important role models. And it is heard around the world, in countries whose people yearn  for the simple right to live without fear of reprisal for who  they are.

Tomorrow and Tuesday, the House of Commons will vote again on the gay marriage bill. It is likely that for the second time a large majority, on a free vote, will back the measure. For all the focus on the bill’s opponents, it is the historic decision to back gay marriage, and the leadership shown by the prime minister on this issue, which will rightly be remembered.

Christopher N Howarth