Stephen Fry and gay marriage

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.

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13 Responses to Stephen Fry and gay marriage

  1. Katherine says:

    Ha, I wish that domestic partneships conferred any real rights but they don’t. In the first place, they are only valid within the state: leave the state of California and the fact that you have a registered domestic partnership becomes entirely irrelevant. Even when it is legally known as marriage, as in the state of Massachussets, it means nothing outside of that state, even if you live in another state that allows domestic partnerships/marriage. Then, if you are resident in the state in which you have married/domestic partnered, then it has an effect on the way you can file for state taxes but no effect on federal taxes. It may or may not extend some of the same rights and protections as heterosexual marriage on the state level but means nothing at all, whatsoever on the federal level which means that it holds no weight on immigration issues, adoption issues, inheritance taxes/laws, social security, hospital visitation or anything of any importance. Then, if one wishes to dissolve the partnership/marriage, one must do so in the same state as it was first registered. This is not the case with straight people marriage. The states are required by federal law to accept divorces and marriages undertaken in different states, however, the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA – thanks Mr. and Mrs. Clinton) clearly and explicitely states that the federal government will never require any given state to accept the legal status of a gay marriage/partnership granted in another state. This is like saying that marriages that took place in France are null and void under British law. It’s a ridiculous situation and much though I do believe in the institution of marriage and much as I am cheered by the sudden rush of those norhtern states unwilling to be outdone in liberalism by Iowa (of all places) to make same-sex marriage/partnerships legal, I will not avail myself of same-sex marriage in this country until DOMA has been abolished. There was a reason I supported President Obama and not Hillary Clinton.
    Oh, that was a tirade – but this is such a frustrating issue.

  2. Mandy says:

    Hi A

    Whatever Stephen Fry is quoted as saying (and who is to know the truth about that..unless he writes something on his blog, or Twitter or wherever he actually posts his thoughts?) he is one person not a community.

    Maybe Jo Public is daft enough to think Mr Fry is is the voice of the Gay community (which, in itself, I would assume has varying views on things). I actually don’t think so. I do think because of his ‘celebrity’ that what he does (or is seen to do) and say has an impact but it won’t change the world and I am relieved about that. No one person should be the voice of everyone (particulary with the sort of media hype that goes on) and although I am not a big Stephen Fry fan I reckon he wouldn’t want that kind of responsiblity. Or maybe he would????

    Mr Fry’s views aside, my view on whether gay people should be able to marry is yes. An equal society should mean equal rights. As for the holy matrimony side of things..Well, I am not remotely religeous and think existing rituals and ceremonies are a farce. Particulary as people spend so much money getting themselves down the aisle…and a few year’s down the line are divorcing (more financial and emotional stress). However, equality is equality and marriage (that level of formal commitment) should be a right for those who want to make it.

  3. aethelreadtheunread says:

    Thanks for the comments.

    Katherine – no problems with the tirade – it has to be said, it was an extremely well-mannered and informative tirade… :o)

    Thanks, as well, for drawing attention to the different rules that apply to marriages and civil partnerships in terms of federal matters, and travel between states. I have to be honest, neither had crossed my mind when i was writing the post. You are quite right, they are both gross inequalities that should have been highlighted.

    I think it’s maybe a little unfair to criticise Hillary Clinton for her husband’s decision to sign the Defense of Marriage Act into law. She had absolutely no legal or constitutional say in the matter, after all.

    I was reading the Wikipedia article on DOMA, and the section of the constitutionality of the Act reminded me that all of these various bans on gay marriage are very likely to be unconstitutional under the Equal Protection clause. (Or, at least, it seems that way to 100%-not-a-lawyer me.) I’m surprised no-one has brought a challenge yet, although i guess there could be one ongoing that i havemn’t heard about. It might also make sense to wait for a time when there’s a liberal majority among the judges in the supreme court, i suppose.

    Anyway, thank you for making the points you make, and for giving me more to think about. :o)

    Mandy – you’re absolutely right, there is no settled view on anything amongst the gay community. (In fact, there’s so little agreement plenty of people have taken to referring to ‘the gay communities‘ rather than ‘the gay community‘.)

    I was also being a little sarcastic when i made the point about heterosexuals thinking that all gay people feel the same way. Clearly, many, many straight people are more than capable of realising that’s not the case. It is a sarcasm born out of personal experience though – i have been asked by straight people on several occasions ‘what do gay people think about X?’

    For what it’s worth, i’m reasonably confident that Stephen Fry wouldn’t want to be seen as an official spokesman for all gay people everywhere.

    As an atheist, i also think the religious rituals that accompany some weddings are ridiculous. I wouldn’t argue that religious groups should be compelled to carry out weddings for same-sex couples if they don’t want to (though there are plenty of christian denominations that don’t have a problem with it – i’m not sure about other faiths). But i do think that gay people should be allowed to go through with a civil marriage in the same way as a straight couple can. Which i guess means that i agree with you! :o)

  4. Lucy McGough says:

    Yeah, if it’s a civil ceremony there’s nowt wrong with calling it a marriage. It’s just a word.

    Getting religions to marry gay couples will be a whole other kettle of fish, of course.

  5. cb says:

    Personally, I think the language is crucially important in considering equality. If a partnership is to be considered a marriage, it should be called a marriage. If that’s what the couple prefer.

    Others might prefer civil partnership – and conversely, I live with my partner, we’re not married but have considered it for the legal rights it would confer. Neither of us are particularly bothered about ‘being married or not’ but if we could have a civil partnership I’d probably prefer that..without getting too hung up, I’d rather his partner than his wife.. but that’s a story for another day – basically I mean we should be able to self-define with the terms that we choose and if it’s marriage in a same-sex relationship, whyever not.

    I do like Fry – I think it’s hard not to actually and that’s how he comes across as an eminently likeable person you’d like to have round to dinner or something – and I think that’s the persona he creates by making as few waves ripple as possible – and that’s not intended to be a criticism.

  6. Mandy says:

    Hi again A

    I think that steriotyping you were writing about happens to people with mental illness as well (am talking a different kind of stigma though). I mean not people automatically thinking ‘chaotic mass murderer’ but assuming because you have been diagnosed as having a certain illness you are therefore able to speak on behalf of everyone who has that illness.

    One person being seen as the ‘typical’ manic depressive per say and , like you, I am speaking from experience.

    There is a positive side to this, in that if someone asks for an opinion (on behalf of a group of people) you/I/anyone who is bothered ,when asked, can say that it is a personal opinion and if they are seeking a more general view then they need to talk to others and see if they get one by doing so.

    That is one of the positives of blogland…in that people who are seen to be from a specific group are clearly showing that they are individuals with their own experiences and views and hopefully that means that people can have, and express different views, without it becoming either a wresting arena or a dumbing down to the point where political correctness rules.

    and hopefully people can learn things along the way…although sometimes I get too caught up in my own issues to be that open…I haven’t stopped trying though.


  7. J.Wibble says:

    I thought Mr Fry’s comments had a generally light-hearted tone, as seems to be a reflection of his personality. It’s true that some straight people do see him as a sort of spokesperson on the gay community, but I’m pretty sure that’s not what he intends to be. A possible theory on his staying in the closet for some time was that he didn’t want to be defined by his gayness, and didn’t want to be remembered as the “shiny poof off the telly” (as Graham Norton once described himself). Some people don’t want to be activists, for whatever reason, and some people do but are scared of the consequences.

    My partner refused to get a walking stick for ages, which he desperately needed and sometimes was unable to leave the house without, because he didn’t want to be ‘visibly’ disabled and to have that define him. This is a person who is an active campaigner for LGBT and disability equality, who at the age of 8 sat in a bus lane and refused to move until they put ramps on buses so his mum could get on them, who was terrified of how people’s perceptions of him would change because he now needed a mobility aid.

    The gay community is no more in uniform agreement than the Jewish community or the Marxist community or the straight white male community (etc.). Some people aren’t bothered about the difference between marriage and civil partnership, and figure if there are people who are so hung up about it that they have to call a gay marriage something else or their heads will explode, then that’s their problem. Few people get involved in issues and debates that don’t directly affect them, sadly, and the rest of us who do care about this bollocks just have to put our energy into making sure our voices are heard.

  8. Renee says:

    Mr. Fry wouldn’t intentionally hurt a fly.
    Why are you picking on him????

  9. Lucy McGough says:

    He’s not picking on him. He’s criticising him. There’s a difference.

  10. I recently attended a lovely wedding where the couple (2 ladies) were undergoing the same series of bureaucratic steps as J Wibble, but in reverse, getting a civil partnership

    It shouldn’t matter if there is a legal change of gender, the relationships should have exactly the same status.

    I make a point of ALWAYS saying ‘marriage’ and ‘wedding’ as it pisses off conservative types (and I freely admit that this is why as well).

    Objecting to gay marriage is like the people who insisted on referring, in past decades, to a female GP as a ‘lady doctor’ as they objected to the idea of the simple title of ‘doctor’ – prejudice.

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  13. A non e-moose says:

    Barebacking bugcatchers are, unfortunately, not an urban myth. It should make everyone, not just LGBTs, seethe with rage as they go out of their way to confirm stereotypes, but they do exist. They’re not as common as the GOP likes to think they are, but they’re out there. And they have their own forums, too. They don’t make up the entirety of the “Poz and proud” gang, but they make up a good chunk. Some even get off on infecting others. It’s disgusting, I know, but to deny their existence is as ignorant as the conservative slime.
    One guy actually has the gene for (or, more accurately, lack of codon to process the RNA of) AIDS immunity and wrote on the forum how sad and frustrated he was that he couldn’t get AIDS.

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