On the last Saturday night of June, 46 years ago, white New York police raided a queer bar in the Village, called the Stonewall inn, and the intended victims – black and Hispanic, trans and genderqueer – fought back.
That night and the name of the bar became a gay icon: not just the US, but around the world.
In 1969, in England and Wales, sex between two men in private if both were over 21 had been decriminalised. Police harassment had stepped up: the police now believed they had been given specific limits on where and who they could harass for being gay.
LGBT people would not be allowed to serve openly in the UK armed services until 1999: until 2003, it was completely legal for an employer to fire an employee for our sexual orientation. Last year the ban on same-sex marriage was lifted in Scotland: this year Ireland became the first country in the world to declare marriage equality by majority vote in a national referendum: Northern Ireland is the standout anti-gay land in the British Isles, but perhaps not for too much longer. (Although the Supreme Court decision overshadowed it, yesterday a Belfast high court judge granted judicial review to couples who wanted to be able to convert their civil partnership to a marriage.)
On the last Friday in June, yesterday, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that nowhere in the US can same-sex couples be banned from marriage.
On Thursday 25th June 2015, the countries around the world where the ban on same-sex marriage is lifted were: Argentina, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, Denmark, England, Finland, France, Iceland, Ireland, Greenland, Luxembourg, Mexico, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Pitcairn Islands, Portugal, Slovenia, South Africa, Scotland, Spain, Sweden, Uruguay, and Wales – and when you came to the United States in the list, there was a steadily-increasing number of US states where same-sex marriage was legal, but in the most of the rest, recognition of same-sex marriage was banned either by legislation or by constitutional amendment, usually an amendment proposed by Republicans during the George W. Bush administration.
When the Supreme Court of the United States announced its ruling, in a moment as significant as the decision in Loving vs Virginia 48 years earlier, all of those state-based laws and constitutional amendments became invalid. Louisiana and perhaps some other states will still cling on to the ban for another few days by claiming they have to wait til their own court case rules – but no lower court will rule against a Supreme Court decision.
For most people – particularly of course same-sex married couples who’d had to move to states which did not recognise same-sex marriage – this is plain good news: indeed, given the way the law and public opinion has been moving, it would have been genuinely surprising only if the Supreme Court had ruled the other way. (Of course, four of them did.)
The difficulty for the cheap-work conservative Christians who have opposed same-sex marriage on the grounds that if same-sex couples can marry this will destroy mixed-sex marriages, encourage divorce, cause flooding, persecute Christians, and annoy God, is that aside from annoying God, all of their promised consequences are demonstrably untrue. (God’s annoyance or otherwise being by definition unprovable.)
A Christian minister who thinks same-sex marriage is against his God’s will isn’t forced to marry a same-sex couple: this is true in every country in the world in which the ban on same-sex marriage has been lifted. (Even in Sweden, where any citizen has a right to demand a religious marriage to be performed in the tax-funded state church, a pastor who says it goes against their conscience can refuse to wed a couple: the church then has to find another pastor. The Svenska kyrkan‘s assembly approved by majority vote to lift the ban on same-sex marriage in church in October 2009.)
Much to the frustration of homophobic Christians who want to demonstrate their belief in the gay-hating gospel, a law lifting the ban on same-sex marriage is nearly impossible to protest by civil disobedience.
You can, of course, protest by other means.
You can appear outside a courthouse or a church where you know same-sex couples are getting married and you can wave signs indicating that you believe God hates the idea of a same-sex couple getting legally married. But all but the most self-righteous of bigots comes to realise that when you hold a public protest to disrupt someone’s wedding, it’s not the couple getting married that look bad in the eyes of the general public.
You can, if you’re a Christian baker who thinks that the answer to WWJD? is “Deny them cake!” do what you think Jesus would do:
turn water into wine refuse to provide a wedding cake to a couple whom you think shouldn’t be allowed to get married. This same kind of protest is also possible to providers of other wedding services: dresses, limos, photographers, flowers, venues. You can even, if you run a failing pizza joint, announce that even if a same-sex couple were to ask you, you wouldn’t provide pizza for their wedding reception and watch how the money rolls in from devout supporters of the heterosexual-only right to have pizza at weddings.
(When we registered our civil partnership, we catered the wedding from a local chip shop and a local cafe: chips, pakora, and onion rings at the pub before the ceremony, scones, sandwiches, and crisps afterward: and a friend made the cake, in the shape of River Song’s diary. I didn’t tell either the chippy or the cafe they were catering for a wedding, but it was because I just wanted their regular prices and not a special wedding surcharge.)
In the UK, it is illegal to discriminate in provision of goods and services on grounds of gender or sexual orientation – as Asher’s Bakery discovered when they wanted to demonstrate their Christianity by refusing to bake a Bert and Ernie cake.
Across the US, states vary according to their application of discrimination law. For cheap-work conservatives, the purposeful denial of goods and services to same-sex couples is how they intend to practice civil disobedience and claim persecution if there are legal or social consequences:
We will also extend the legal concept of ‘reasonable accommodation’ to give protection in law to those expressing a religious conscience in the workplace on this issue.” (UKIP’s Christian Manifesto, April 2015)
The problem for the Christians and others who want to show their belief that God hates homosexuals and same-sex marriage is that while they certainly can claim that it’s a necessary aspect of their faith to discriminate against LGBT people, they cannot claim this to be something universally Christian. The belief that homosexuality is a special sin that must be specially-excluded and sinners discriminated against by civil law is neither unique to Christianity nor universal among Christians.
The American hate groups that fund homophobic actions and campaigns in the US and beyond, won’t lose their money or their hate just because of this huge setback.
True, cheap-work conservative pastors like Rick Scarborough, who promised he was ready to burn if the ban on same-sex marriage was lifted, do have a problem ahead of them. Of course no one wants Scarborough to set himself on fire over this, but I think it would be a nice touch if a crowd of LGBT people turned up at his church in Texas this Sunday with concerned expressions and buckets of water.
Scarborough was riffing off a popular hymn about Shadrach, Meschach, and Abednego in the fiery furnace, which has the refrain “They wouldn’t bend, they wouldn’t bow, they wouldn’t burn”. It seems unlikely that Scarborough ever thought he would be taken literally in his willingness to burn alive or be shot dead if same-sex couples marry, but perhaps a troop of bare-chested firemen with long rubber hoses gushing cool, soothing liquid all over him would help him if he really meant it.
[Update: unsurprisingly, within 24 hours of the Supreme Court decision, Scarborough has found it necessary to issue a clarifying statement that he didn’t really mean it about burning.]
What Scarborough has told his followers he believes will happen when same-sex couples can marry:
“The end game is the complete destruction of the church of the Lord Jesus, the replacement of it with this liberal theology that’s not a theology, it’s a philosophy, human-made, it goes back to the Garden of Eden when Satan wanted to be God. We now have a race of humans that don’t want to acknowledge that there’s a God.”
Scarborough can keep pushing this, of course. But the trouble with ramping up to an apocalypse is that when the apocalypse doesn’t happen, most people stop listening.
And the other trouble is, that even when the apocalypse doesn’t happen, the hard core of true believers go on being certain that it will.
Nevertheless, this Supreme Court decision is a huge step forward: one of things LGBT people have discovered over the past fifty years or so is that it is harder for homophobic and transphobic bigots to demonise us when people know who we are. Now the US Supreme Court has lifted the ban on same-sex marriage for 321 million people, that will in the long run create higher visibility both in the US and around the world in US pop culture transmitted globally.
But it’s just one more step on the long road to equality.
Marriage in England and Wales is still discriminatory for trans people: a married person who wants to transition must get formal permission from their spouse to do so, or else get a divorce. (This is not the case in Scotland: the right to transition and the right to marriage and divorce have been separated.)
Pension companies are still entitled to enjoy the profits they always expected to gain from same-sex couples not being allowed to marry or register our relationships until 5th December 2005: any pension contributions made before that date aren’t counted towards a widow/widower’s pension rights if they were in a same-sex marriage.
The impact on LGBT people from austerity cuts and increased poverty is real: but the anti-austerity movement for the most part takes no account of LGBT issues with regard to austerity and poverty. (I didn’t go to the anti-austerity demo in Glasgow last Saturday because Saturday 20th June was Edinburgh LGBT Pride. I don’t believe any of the organisers of the austerity movement thought twice about scheduling their anti-austerity demos so as not to clash with LGBT Pride events, even though they planned their big demo to take place in the middle of Pride Month.)
It’s important not to think we can stop. Even lifting the ban on same-sex marriage is just part of getting us there: to the point when a child can realise their true gender, or a child can discover their sexual orientation, without shame or fear or ignorance. When bullying someone for their gender, their gender-identity, their perceived sexual orientation, will seem as absurdly hateful as it would be to bully a child for their handedness. Then we’ll have won.
But I don’t want to decry this change. It’s huge. I’m happy for everyone in the US who will be able to get married now, who was denied this right before.
In 1992, a friend died of AIDS. Eric had a partner, Nigel, and Nigel was treated as part of the family at the funeral: the church was divided with the Catholic half of the family at one side, the Episcopalian at the other side, and at the back of the church, a crowd of friends in black leather. The rector acknowledged Nigel in his funeral sermon. Family-only at the graveside: Nigel included, Eric’s friends not. We all went off to a pub together.
In 2009, a friend of Eric’s died: Stephen, who’d become a friend of mine since that funeral day. The church was not divided: family and friends sat everywhere. Close friends and family went to the graveside for the burial. Afterwards, upstairs in the same pub as in 1992, we all had a boozy lunch. I still remember, six years later, looking round that room and seeing both Stephen’s family and his husband’s family, seeing the rector who had married them (years earlier, in a religious ceremony which had just been banned by the Synod in England), seeing friends straight and gay and bi and trans, and remembering that other funeral 17 years before: we really did change the world.
When the Scottish same-sex marriage act became law, in December last year, my partner and I went to Leith Registry Office and took 20 minutes to formally re-register our civil partnershp as a marriage: she became my wife on 19th December 2014. As we walked out of the office on our way to afternoon tea with the family to be followed by an evening at the pub with friends, I said “well, we’re now legal in more countries than we were”. That was true then, it’s ever-more true as the months pass.
But mostly, we wanted to be able to say “we’re married: she’s my wife”.
So, on this day: to all the MPs and the MSPs who voted for my right to marry my wife, whether at Westminster or Holyrood, thank you very much. We really did change the world: and you helped.