Stephen Fry is, clearly, a god amongst men. Except that gods don’t exist and Stephen Fry does…er…let’s start again…
Stephen Fry is, clearly, an exceptional human being. I’m a big fan, especially of his comedy, and especially of his work on QI. You could make a good case for arguing that QI is the ultimate TV programme for people like me. I do, genuinely, find the kind of trivia discussed on the programme fascinating, and I like the air of intellectual discussion tempered with whimsical humour. (But they should never have Jimmy Carr as a guest – he misunderstands the point of the show, and tries to reduce everything, instantly, to a one-liner. Plus he’s a git.)
Taking all this as read, I still do not always agree with everything Mr Fry says. This isn’t surprising, of course. I often think of him as a rather unworldly university don – a frightfully kind, nice, decent man, but rather unsuited for the brusque hurly-burly of real life. I was, for example, disappointed to see him so ready to accept at face value the ‘HIV negative young man asks HIV positive older men to infect him with AIDS’ urban myth in the course of his HIV and Me programme, not least because, whether he wishes it or not, many heterosexuals assume he is Official Spokesman for The Gays. (He isn’t. We had the vote at the annual Homosexualist Convention-cum-Kylie-Disco just last week, and he narrowly lost out to Gok Wan…)
Anyway, what has particularly precipitated this outburst from me are some typically mildly-expressed comments Mr Fry made on the subject of gay marriage, and which are reported by Pink News:
Stephen Fry has spoken out on gay marriage, saying it doesn’t matter what wording is used.
Speaking from California, he said: “If people want to reserve marriage for a man-woman thing then fine, call it something else.”
He continued: “A bonding, a uniting, a legal yoking – that’s fine. Yoking is a lovely word. Yoked together…”
Staff Writer, ‘Stephen Fry: “It doesn’t matter what you call marriage” ‘, Pink News, 21st April 2009.
It is not immediately clear from the article whether Stephen Fry’s comments were made directly to Pink News themselves, or if they were primarily intended to be read by a UK or US audience. (Given the source of most Stephen Fry stories over the last little while, I suspect that the comments may have been expressed in a series of tweets, but I am not a follower of Mr Fry’s twitterings, so I can’t confirm that.) The comments have different connotations, I think, dependent on whether they are viewed from a UK or American perspective, but it is, in any case, regrettable he has made these comments ‘from California’.
As many of you may know, at the same time that they voted for President Obama, a narrow majority of Californians also voted in favour of a constitutional amendment that defined marriage, exclusively, as a relationship between a man and a woman. It follows from this that the topic is a highly volatile one in California (and in many other states in the Union, as well), and it is unfortunate that Stephen Fry appears, on the basis of these brief and possibly incomplete comments, not to have understood that the campaign against gay marriage is not a stand-alone issue, but rather part of an ongoing and politically-orchestrated campaign against all forms of gay rights.
During an earlier phase of the gay rights campaign, there was a major focus on the ban on lesbians and gay men serving in the armed forces. As someone with no desire to join the army, it might have seemed reasonable for me to say ‘Well, if they want to restrict the right to serve in the military to heterosexuals, let them. There are plenty of other jobs for gay people to do.’ Such a statement would have been missing the point, because I would have failed to recognise that a victory for the anti-gay movement on this single issue would represent a victory for the anti-gay campaign as a whole. It is this error that I think Stephen Fry has fallen into. The name given to the legally recognised form of a same-sex relationship matters precisely because the anti-gay movement have decided that it does. If the gay rights movement concedes the point on gay marriage, they have conceded that the anti-gays are right to insist that there is a fundamental, qualitative difference between gay and straight relationships.
In California, as in the UK, there is an alternative to marriage for same-sex couples – in California this is known as a Domestic Partnership, in the UK as a Civil Partnership. A civil partnership carries equal legal rights and responsibilities to a civil marriage; a domestic partnership is largely identical to a marriage, although there are some minor differences. The issue isn’t, then, about extending things like next-of-kin rights, or inheritance tax rights, and I would agree with those who say that securing these rights was the main goal, and that the ongoing battle about what name is given to these bundles of legal rights is less important than the battle to secure them in the first place.
But that doesn’t change the fact that the battle on the issue of the names remains to be fought. The only reason to call a legal union between two people of the same sex something different to a legal union between two people of the opposite sex is that you believe there is a difference in the status of the two types of relationships. If you think that a homosexual relationship is of equal status and value to a heterosexual relationship, then there is no reason not to call a legal union between same-sex partners a marriage.
Many people who object to gay marriage do so on religious grounds. They believe that their god has told them that same-sex relationships are not equal to opposite-sex relationships. The key issue here is not the outlandish nature of the particular belief system, but rather that people who say, for whatever reason, that marriage must always be between a man and a woman do so because they believe a relationship between two people of the same sex is inferior to a heterosexual relationship. It is entirely right and proper for gay people to object to this belief, and also to challenge those who respond to such expressions of contempt, and even hatred, for gay people by saying that they don’t matter.
When the Civil Partnership Act 2004 came into force, the UK government clearly hoped that civil partnerships would be understood as being ‘separate but equal’ to marriage. The problem, as always, with such a hope is that separate is never equal. During the years of racial segregation in the US, there was a great deal of ‘separate but equal‘ provision. Where separate public drinking fountains were provided for black and white people, for example, the same drinking water was provided to both populations, but most people would now accept that such segregation was prejudicial, because it drew an unnecessary and highly offensive distinction between black and white people. The only reason for having separate drinking facilities for the two groups of people was because it was believed that there was something significantly different about the two groups of people. (For the record, I am not arguing that the issue of the name given to same-sex unions compares in a practical sense with the violent prejudice experienced by black and mixed-race people during segregation – the problems faced by black and mixed race people were clearly much, much worse. The theoretical point about ‘separate but equal’ provision still applies, however.)
If there is anyone reading this who is still unconvinced by my argument, I’d invite them to consider the following thought experiment. Imagine that, after years of campaigning, non-christian people were finally to be given equal relationship rights to christians. Everything about the relationships was to be identical, except that they were to be given different names. Christians were to continue to be married at a wedding, and would be legally referred to by the words ‘husband’, ‘wife’, and ‘spouse’. Non-christians would undergo a civil partnership ceremony, and would be legally known as civil partners. The difference in words was only adopted by the government of the day because a minority of hardline christians argued, with the support of a rabidly conservative press, that ‘marriage’ had a special meaning in the context of their faith, and that it would be an infringement of their human rights and a betrayal of everything the UK stood for if non-christians were to be allowed to call their commitment ceremonies weddings.
Given these circumstances, would you expect non-christians, while relieved to have legal equality, to be entirely happy with this state of affairs? If you were a non-christian yourself, how would you feel about a fellow non-christian who argued that the whole issue of the names was irrelevant? How would you feel about a fellow non-christian for whom you ordinarily have a great liking and respect who made light-hearted and well-meaning jokes about non-christians using the term ‘yoked together’ instead? Now recollect that this is precisely the situation which applies to gay people in the UK.
There’s one final reason why creating separate institutions for same- and opposite-sex unions matters, and that is what happens to couples where one or both partners are transgender. I know of a couple, for example, who spent several years married, and although they were happy with each other, were both coming to the separate conclusion that there was something wrong in their relationship. Eventually they sat down to talk about what was going on, and the ‘male’ half of the couple rather nervously said, ‘I think I might actually be a woman’, and the (other) female half replied ‘Well, I think I’m a lesbian, and that explains a LOT about why you were the only ‘man’ I was ever attracted to!’
This was, of course, the start of a long and rocky road for them, but it was made worse by the fact that they were required, by law, to get divorced, and then form a civil partnership once the process of transition was complete. They were desperately upset by this, because, despite the difficulties, they had not and did not stop loving each other. The non-trans half of the couple was especially distraught, because she felt she was being forced by an act of parliament (actually, two acts of parliament – the Gender Recognition Act 2004, as well as the Civil Partnership Act) to break her vow to love and support her partner at the exact moment when she was most in need of her support.
J Wibble, the author of the excellent Toaster in the Shower blog, has written eloquently about the similar nonsense he and his partner will be forced to go through:
All this bullshit means that, as I have mentioned before, I and my partner can choose either a) to get a civil partnership, then a dissolution and a marriage (when I get my GRC [Gender Recognition Certificate – the official document that marks the legal change of gender]), then a divorce and a civil partnership (when he gets his), or b) to wait until we both have our GRCs, which could be anywhere from two years to never.
J Wibble, ‘The L-rd will provide, the law of the land will not‘, Toaster in the Shower, March 6th 2009.
J and his partner have recently taken the decision to go down route a, and I am, of course, thrilled for them, but I am also angry on their behalf that they are being forced to negotiate their way along such a tortuous path. Bear in mind that this is only necessary because of the ‘separate but equal’ civil partnership legislation. If the government had opted simply to expand the definition of civil marriage to include same-sex couples, there would be no need for couples in these and similar situations to break their legal commitment to each other.
I began this post by saying that I like and respect Stephen Fry, and I still do. I think one of the reasons I like him is that he appears to be a rather contradictory and even in some ways conflicted person. For example, he is simultaneously an atheist and a godfather to Hugh Laurie’s children. In the same vein, I can’t forget that he spent many of the crucial years of the gay rights campaign (the period from the early 80s to the late 90s) as, officially, ‘celibate’ rather than gay. This is not intended as a criticism in itself – for all I know, he had very good personal reasons for refusing to answer the persistent questions about his sexual orientation. Certainly he doesn’t seem to have been motivated by personal fearfulness or professional caution – he was an outspoken supporter of gay rights.
The fact remains, however, that for those many years he chose to be publicly identified as not-gay, as a supporter of the campaign rather than a campaigner in his own right. I can’t help but wonder if that wish to avoid rocking the boat, to not risk upsetting anyone, might also explain his willingness to concede that there is a fundamental difference between straight couples and gay couples, and that only heterosexuals should be allowed to marry.