Unless you’ve been in a nuclear bunker for the last few days you’ve probably realised that there was a pretty important vote yesterday evening. MPs voted on the government’s gay marriage (Same Sex Couples) bill and it was overwhelmingly supported. 400 MPs were in favour while 175 voted against. The bill is a step further than Civil Partnerships, and will give same sex couples the same rights as marriage between opposite sex couples. It is a giant leap forward in terms of equality and will allow same sex couples to marry in civil and religious ceremonies and allow current couples in civil partnerships to convert their relationships into marriage.
To say this is a monumental result is something of an understatement. Compare the 400 who voted in favour on yesterday’s gay marriage plans with the 370 MPs who voted in favour of repealing section 28 and the, much lower, 263 who voted to equalise the age of consent. The gravitas of yesterday’s vote was not only apparent in the numbers who supported it, but also in the comments made by Nick Clegg and David Cameron after the result. Nick Clegg was particularly triumphant, especially since this was one of the cause célèbres of the Lib Dems: ‘I genuinely believe that we will look back on today as a landmark for equality in Britain. Tonight’s vote shows Parliament is very strongly in favour of equal marriage.’ No matter who you are and who you love, we are all equal. Marriage is about love and commitment, and it should no longer be denied to people just because they are gay’.
The outcome of yesterday’s vote is symbolic of the great shift in public attitudes towards homosexuality in the last few decades. Indeed, it’s hard to believe that as recent as the 1960s (and 1980s in Scotland and Northern Ireland!) homosexuality was illegal and TV reports openly called homosexuals repugnant and repulsive. My question, then, is that after such a significant outcome, in terms of LGBT equality, why did so much of the media put such a negative spin on their reporting of the vote result? There were exaggerated comments made of the UK as a ‘divided nation’ and the media seemed more concerned with the 140 Conservative MPs who voted against the bill and the fact that it leaves the Tories in tatters than the bill’s importance and what it represents for equality in the UK. In fact, newspapers and TV reports were so wound up in naming and shaming the MPs who voted against (e.g. reports of a Lib Dem teacher who felt voting against the bill was one of the most difficult decisions she faced) that there seemed to be little cause for celebration yesterday evening.
There are two important comments to be made here. Firstly, yesterday’s vote was an immense advancement of LGBT equality in the UK and should be celebrated as such and, secondly the focus on naming and shaming in the media raises important questions about the limits of freedom of speech (when, if ever, should freedom of speech be denied? Is there a danger of being hypocritical limiting freedom of speech?) and tolerance of intolerance (is there intolerance that should not be tolerated and does this change the meaning of tolerance itself?). Admittedly the first point is a little more straightforward than the second one, but they are both important to consider in what we consider to be tolerant times. For now, let’s take pride in yesterday’s decision and the progress it represents in terms of equality and not get caught up in the unproductive slanging match that most of the media seem to be embroiled!
What do you think about the treatment of the same sex marriage vote in the media? Do you think it has been too negative or do you think it is justified?
GMI provide free sexual health services for gay and bisexual men and trans folks living in London. One of the issues that our programmes focus on is relationships and the links between relationships and unprotected sex. For more information contact firstname.lastname@example.org
The views above are those of the author and do not necessarily relate to those of the GMI Partnership.