Our cycling trip in the states has coincided with steps forward for gay equality, both here and at home.
On Wednesday a supreme court ruling struck down the controversial federal Defence of Marriage Act (DOMA) that discriminated against gay couples in the US and barred them from receiving benefits that married couples of the opposite sex could receive. This is a hugely significant decision, it came about because a woman called Edie Windsor was required to pay inheritance taxes on the estate of her dead partner, Thea Spyer – even though they had been a couple for 40 years, were married and had lived together. Their marriage had taken place in Toronto, Canada in 2007. But the same-sex marriage was not recognized – so inheritance taxes had to be paid – taxes that would not have been required if the couple were heterosexual.
Edie is an inspiration and here she is talking about her life at New Yorker Festival:
The courts here in America have also dismissed another case challenging same sex marriage in California and therefore restored the right to marriage to thousands of gay and lesbian couples there. What a day!
Meanwhile back in the UK the ‘Marriage (Same Sex) Bill has completed its third and final committee stage in the House of Lords (the UK’s second chamber). The Bill will now have a final report stage, a third and final reading in the Lords and then be considered in its amended form by both the House of Commons and the House of Lords. Subject to approval the Bill will then receive Royal Ascent and become law. All of which means, in short, that after 19 years together, me and Mike might be able to get married in time for our 20th anniversary in June 2014!
The changes in law taking place on both sides of the pond, and indeed President Obama’s recent statement on his tour of Africa calling for countries there to drop their homophobic laws are a startling reminder of how far equality has moved for the gay community. When I was growing up the UK government were running an AIDS campaign that pretty much said ‘if you’re gay, you’ll probably get AIDS and die – oh and by the way, it’s you’re own fault’. Added to that the government of prime minister Margaret Thatcher also brought in Section 28 of the Local Government Act, which outlawed the ‘promotion of homosexuality’, which in reality meant that many public sector workers (such as teachers, health workers etc.) were being told by the government that they could not offer advice or help to gay people who sought it, so if you we’re a young gay man (as I was) or women who was vulnerable, then if the government were saying, you’re on your own.
It wasn’t much better at the time I met Mike, when the UK parliament was debating the proposed change for age of consent for gay men from 21 to 16 (bizarrely there had never been an age of consent for lesbians, widely rumoured to be because Queen Victoria would never accept that women would do such a thing as have sex with one another!). Back in 1994 I was 19, so still legally not able to have sexual relations with another man even though I had just met Mike and the fact that my straight friends had been ‘legal’ for two year. In a very typically British muddled way, parliament decided to lower the age of consent from 21 to 18 – not 16. We had to wait until 2000 for the Labour government to force through full equality against strong opposition from the right and the House of Lords. I remember feeling very miffed that not only was 18 an outrageous discrimination, but it also meant the age of consent had leapfrogged me and so I would never get that coming of age moment, (I take any opportunity for a party). I was just suddenly ‘legally allowed to have sex’ – but still a long way from being equal. Fortunately, many people (gay and straight) abhorred this hatred and intolerance and fought back, making the gay community stronger and more visible. This in turn, I’m sure has helped change public attitudes and helped get both the USA and the UK to a place where the majority of the population now support same sex marriage. Thank you to all the ‘friends of Dorothy’ and the ‘friends of friends of Dorothy’ fighting for change. We wouldn’t have got this far without you. The important issue is that it’s surely not the job of the state to say who you can fall in love with or who should be allowed to get married. Now we’ll just have to wait to see when (I’m pretty confident now that it’s a when, not if) the law changes to find out if we won’t have a 20th anniversary after all – and maybe we’ll have a first (wedding) anniversary instead.