My friend and colleague, Andrew Smith, recently gained some celebrity for a letter he sent to his MP asking him about his attitude towards gay marriage. Owen Paterson, MP for North Shropshire, responded negatively and became the first cabinet minister to publicly state that he was against marriage equality – a newsworthy statement that has pushed the issue back into the headlines. Here he is:
This is a terrific example of how individual advocacy and interest can have big ramifications. For all of you people who care about rights, take the time to send a letter to your MP and ask about their stance on gay marriage or another issue close to your heart.
The following is a blog post Andrew wrote about the incident (originally published on Join The Debate by ARTICLE 19).
I have learnt a number of things already this week. The first is that participating in the UK democratic process is made incredibly easy by www.writetothem.com. A quick email and I was able to ask my MP, Owen Paterson, to make his position on marriage equality clear. The second is that through twitter, it took only a few hours to get my dissatisfaction with the response I received retweeted by the coalition for equal marriage and then picked up by Politics Home.
By the time I finished an ARTICLE 19 training in Nairobi today, Owen Paterson’s opposition to marriage equality (and a quote from me in response) had been reported by the Shropshire Star, the Daily Mail (a life-long personal ambition), the Huffington Post, Pink News, the Torygraph, and the Independent. No.10 Downing Street issued a statement reaffirming its commitment to a vote on marriage equality by the next general election. Apparently Teresa May is doing an “out for marriage” video. It is difficult not to love the right to freedom of expression on days like today.
It brought me back to a point that ARTICLE 19 has stressed recently – that what most commentary on equality measures for Lesbians, Gays, Bisexuals, and Transgendered (LGBT) people seems to miss is that discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation silences voices. Prejudice against LGBT people, long manifested in our laws and even more prevalent in our customs, makes people too frightened to express themselves. It forces people to hide a part of their identity that is integral to them, because if it were exposed they fear that stigma would define them and they would lose everything else. It makes others pause before speaking out against homophobic speech, concerned that the same stigma may stick to them too.
When the Civil Partnership bill was being voted on in 2004 I was a closeted teenager in rural Shropshire. I preoccupied myself a great deal with making sure that no one knew my sexual orientation. Despite the progress of civil partnerships sounding like a pretty good idea to me at the time, I didn’t say anything about it. I did not write a letter to Owen Paterson MP in 2004. He voted against the introduction of civil partnerships without ever hearing my views. I had censored myself.
Things have moved on for me personally. I came out. My friends and family were great about it. I realised that civil partnerships aren’t what I want, that “separate but equal” is a maxim that I am not impressed with. I can now write to my MP about equality, tweet about LGBT rights, blog about it, be out at work and email my parents links to the newspaper articles I’m quoted in.
Despite opposing marriage equality, Owen Paterson MP told me that the Government is “rightly committed” to promoting equality for LGBT people around the world. His voting record indicates that he has done everything in his power to be an obstacle to progress. Owen Paterson incongruously applauds the Government’s efforts to promote LGBT rights around the world, while failing to recognise the connection between recognising marriage equality and promoting equality everywhere.
I am currently working with ARTICLE 19 East Africa in Kenya, where sodomy is still a criminal offence as a direct consequence of British Imperialism – and in several neighbouring countries expressing your sexual orientation can get you killed – frequently with indifference from the government and impunity for perpetrators. Google “David Kato”. David Kato was a human rights activist murdered for speaking out for equality – for expressing himself.
Disconnected from marriage equality you might think? No it is not.
I was in a bar in Nairobi a night or two after US President Barack Obama, of Kenyan heritage on his father’s side, came out as a supporter of marriage equality. To the gay men and women I spoke to that night, many of whom live in the kind of fear I’ve been lucky enough to never have experienced, it meant a great deal that a world leader had made such a public statement that nothing – neither religion or tradition – justify discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender. Marriage equality says a whole lot about our values as a whole, including who we allow to express themselves freely.
Legislating for marriage equality in the UK will send people living with the realities of discrimination – whether casual prejudice in Shropshire or threats of murder in Uganda – a clear message that they are not alone and that the tide of change is in their favour. It will provide a bit of self-assurance to people who would rather self-censor. If the UK wishes to play an international role on the promotion of human rights, our moral authority depends on the coherence of this commitment to equality.
I am hopeful that in the coming months the proposals for marriage equality will stimulate dialogue and debate. People will robustly defend their views and attack those of others, as they should. I strongly believe that views underpinned by fear and ignorance will be exposed as such. I hope that everyone who wants to can make their voice heard in the discussion.