Newton’s third law and gay equality

I am no scientist, but I seem to remember my father explaining to me how, for every action, there has to be an equal and opposite reaction. This was Sir Isaac Newton’s third law. The essence of this law is short and sweet – probably why I can still remember it. It seems to apply to a lot of things and as I seek balance in my life I know that if I want to increase one activity, I have to find a way to decrease something else. Basic stuff really.

I suppose I had hoped that there was an occasional area in which this law allowed a little leeway. If I gain more love in my life, do I have to lose something to make way for that love? If I gain an increase in my salary, do I lose something else? Politicians seem to be bound to Newton – as they gain power they all too often seem to lose integrity! Proof surely that there is no escape!

The area in which I had hoped to escape this law the most was that of equality. Here in the UK we have just seen the law change to enable gay couples to marry. Yes – I can finally call someone my wife, should I wish to and were I to find “Mrs Right’. It feels like a huge step forward in normalising gay relationships.

And yes – I do realise that there is discussion to be had around why normalising means we have to take on heterosexual constructs like marriage. But i think the big rush to say ‘I do’ means that old fashioned marriage is exactly what a huge number of gay couples do want – heterosexual construct or not! So I will not get side-tracked on this issue for the time being. Or the fact that marriage for gay people in the UK is still not equal to that of heterosexual people – what do they mean gay people can’t commit adultery?!

While we celebrate in this country and watch with joy as other countries and more and more states in the US accept the marriages of gay couples, old Newton’s law is working overtime. Often in a direct counter to increasing liberalisation, we see anti-gay laws being introduced, tightened and cruelly enforced. I used to think that I could travel to most countries in the world – now there are many that I would not travel to if you paid me. In many of these places, it is religion that leads the way in spreading extreme homophobia. The irony that, in many countries, it is the religion spread by Western missionaries that now points its damning finger back at the liberal West is not lost.

The new (-ish) Archbishop of Canterbury has publicly stated that he dare not lead the Anglican church further down the path of accepting gay equality because of the persecution that could be unleashed on African Christians. I was shocked at this statement! To use that argument as an excuse for refusing to end discrimination in this country seems ludicrous to me. What about places where the colour of a person’s skin is still reason for so-called God-fearing folk to treat someone less equitably? Does that mean Christians in this country shouldn’t campaign for racial equality? In some countries people are persecuted because of having particular health conditions or disabilities. So the West should not be heard condemning such attitudes?

It would appear that Newton’s law holds true. As I gain more equality, another lesbian in another place becomes less equal. But I am not happy with that and I’m going to call Newton’s law invalid. I’m kicking physics into touch! Well – not quite. You see, I know that the laws of physics apply to particles and ‘things’. But I am a human and I believe that people are more than things. I don’t have to comply with the law of things because humans have something – call it a spirit, call it humanity – that is beyond things. Just as I choose not to go to war, or to steal from my neighbour, I choose not to accept the inevitability that as one country becomes more equal another becomes less so. Equality isn’t a ‘thing’ – it is part of being human.

So, Mr Putin, Archbishop, Mr Mugabe and everyone else out there who thinks that gay people can be treated like second class ‘things’ to a greater or lesser degree, you’re backing a loser. Gay equality is about being human. Newton’s law does not apply!


Remembering to be angry

I follow Stella Duffy’s excellent blog – Not Writing But Blogging (see Blogroll on the right for the link) and she got angry a few days ago. As is her wont, when she’s riled up about something she uses her great gift with words to share her thoughts. Her point was about it not being good enough that theatre so poorly represents women – women actors, women directors, women writers and women theatregoers. She went on to say that if the arts world (supposedly more politically left than most arenas) is still ignoring the majority of the population, what chance do minority groups anywhere have in achieving equality?

As a woman I am very aware that women are still far from equal. I am aware generally of how poorly women are represented, treated, paid and so on and do my small bit to challenge this. However, I had made the assumption that theatre at least was an area where things should be better. Theatre is about people and life after all, so how can you represent people and life without women? But the main impact of Stella’s piece that hit home for me is that we have to get gender equality sorted out. If we don’t, regardless of laws and regulations, women will continue to be the also-rans in society.

In many ways I have had a very privileged life. I am independent, I have a job, I am free of major personal oppression, I have the right to vote. But equality, or the need for it, has always been present in my life, albeit it in small ways. As a teenager I fought with my parents over them buying South African produce. My heart sang at Martin Luther King’s impassioned words. I cried myself to sleep when told that it was far more important for my brother to go to university because, as a man, he would have a family to support. I was shocked into silence when my all-male colleagues in my first job refused to have a woman in the office, forcing me to work in a mobile office elsewhere. Years later I resigned when overlooked for promotion yet again because ‘people prefer senior post-holders to be men’. I fought against my sexuality for years because I knew how hard it would be to be gay in a small rural community. And I wrestled with God over a church that turned its back on me when I did come out.

In small ways I have fought back. Some battles I have won, others I lost and some I am still fighting. I’m stubborn and I don’t give up easily! But until Stella’s piece gave me a nudge I suppose I had put gender equality on the back burner. She made me realise that I have almost accepted the status quo, feeling that other areas, like gay rights, at least offer some hope of success. I hadn’t stopped being angry but I had allowed it to be a habit, one that I had stopped noticing really.

But Stella Duffy is right. When the majority of the population can be so easily dominated by the male minority, ultimately other equality battles will never fully succeed. Until those with the power ‘get’ equality and the need for it, all issues of equality will struggle. So I have to get my act sorted, stir up my anger and my indignation. I’m back in the battle!

A jubilee tarnished

It has been a busy weekend for some here in the UK. The Queen has been on the throne for 60 years – a pretty amazing feat by any standard. There have been street parties, a pageant consisting of a thousand boats on the Thames, a concert, a special service in St Paul’s and a heck of a lot of flag waving!

I have to be upfront here: I am not a royalist. I have huge respect for someone who, through sheer accident of birth, has had to give up any pretense of a personal life and has done that with grace and patience. But I cannot willingly accept that accident of birth should give anyone the right to rule over me or my country. In the UK that makes me a republican I suppose – but not the kind of Republican that makes the news in the States!

I love my country, quirky and old fashioned though it may be. It has taken me a while to realise that I love this small and imperfect island, but I do. For me being English comes first – an even smaller and quirkier part of this island. But I am also British. And I am European too – and yes, I’m proud of that too.

I have watched the pageantry, knowing that the scenes will become a part of my nation’s history. I have been moved by some of it. I have also cringed at some of it – the awful Royal Barge that looked like it came straight out of a camp lap dancing club for example. Even the Queen, who at 86 must surely have really needed to sit at some point, refused to avail herself of the huge ugly red fluffy throne!

What has moved me to write today hasn’t been the rights or wrongs of the celebrations, but the news that I read yesterday evening.

One of the great songs from our history is the stirring Rule Britannia. There is a line that says “Britons never will be slaves”. A proud statement from a proud people. But this weekend we learned that some of the staff working at the event were unemployed people, made to work there for nothing or risk losing their unemployment benefits. Not only this, they were expected to sleep under a bridge in the open air and then change into uniforms in public – including the women. To me, slavery comes horrifyingly close to enforced, unpaid labour with no choice for the person concerned. On reading that news, my heart sank and I was ashamed that this could happen in my country. I might expect it of some countries where human rights remain in dark ages, but in Britain?

We, the tax payers, must have paid a fortune for the pageantry of the weekend. The gold on the Royal Barge wasn’t fake, for example. The consensus was that celebrating 60 years of service was a worthy cause and, despite my republicanism, I don’t begrudge that expenditure. But surely the few extra pounds required to pay staff the minimum wage, put them up at a hotel and find them somewhere half decent to change wouldn’t have made an appreciable difference to the final bill.

Another issue worth noting was that the police had approved a demonstration by republicans, who wanted to voice their opposition to the monarchy. In a nation proud of its history of free speech and democracy, allowing this protest was right and proper. But on the day, hundreds of the protesters weren’t allowed through to the agreed meeting place.

For me, these two things ruined the whole weekend. They reveal what seems to be a growing separation in the UK between the country we claim to be and the country that our government is making us become. Human rights and respect for all, regardless of class or status are fast becoming theory rather than fact. And as for democracy – we seem to be taking giant strides backwards to a time when the landed gentry and the wealthy do what they want at the expense of those at the bottom of the ladder – the poor, the unemployed, the disabled and the elderly. We had a glimpse this weekend of a side of Britain that is ugly, self-interested and anything but democratic. Small glimpses, granted – but vitally important.

We have seen a nation proud of its monarch this weekend. But I am more proud of the rights and equalities that our people have fought for and won – and democracy and protecting the vulnerable and poor are way up the list. This weekend my nation failed its people, because in allowing a small number of people to be treated so badly, we pave the way for many more to follow to them.

The ‘real thing’

Time is running out to take part in the UK government’s consultation on same sex marriage. I have tried hard to encourage people I know to fill in the relatively short and easy questionnaire. But I also know that some people won’t bother.

The fight for equality is a strange thing. Those that fight the hardest tend to be those affected, those that have a personal stake in the achievement of equality. That is natural. But I remember the battles against apartheid – and even in my isolated life in rural England I knew to check the origins of the produce I bought in order to avoid supporting the oppressive regime. As a white girl living in a 99 per cent white environment I still knew that discriminating against someone on the grounds of skin colour was stupid and wrong. My friends and I had no hesitation in waving the flag for equality – and we wept heartfelt tears watching Nelson Mandela walk free years later. It still moves me to tears today. I know that for many this battle still rages every day, but the point I want to make is that people of all colours and creeds rallied to that call for fairness and I believe it was that universal strength that created change.

I know that there are straight people fighting alongside their gay and lesbian friends, colleagues and families – we would not be where we are without them! But I’m also aware that many people, decent caring people who absolutely believe in equality, are sat to one side in this latest battle. They think the battle it already won – they see us happily out at work and home, they attend civil partnership ceremonies and cheer and clap their joy. This is all such a big change in just one generation – they think we have made it. And this isn’t exclusive to straight people – I have met gay people who feel that they are pushing their luck by asking for more.

I have been amazed at the progress of ‘gay rights’ in the last couple of decades alone. I couldn’t stop crying when I attended a friend’s civil partnership ceremony – to see their friends and family and the hotel staff all behaving as if this was a standard wedding was incredibly moving. It was of course just another wedding. It was the normality of it – the acceptance of it and the celebration and recognition of two people’s love regardless of them being gay – that swept me away. I never thought I would see such a thing.

That should be it shouldn’t it? Haven’t we made it? No – we haven’t. In exactly the same way that black people having to sit at the back of the bus wasn’t enough for racial equality, a second-class legal process isn’t enough for gay and lesbian couples. That first couple whose ceremony left me red-eyed were over-joyed that at last the ‘system’ recognised their relationship. But they have found that it isn’t marriage. It isn’t treated as marriage by some of their family. They were prevented from referring to their beliefs during the ceremony – something so important to one of them that they nearly didn’t get there! They talk about many minor things that have left them wanting the ‘real thing’.

Would a straight couple accept an ‘almost but not quite’ marriage? What is ‘wrong’ with me that means others can legally stop me marrying my partner? Because that is the message – gay and lesbian people are not good enough to take this step that is open to everyone else. Murderers, child molesters, fraudsters can all marry. People who have broken the religious laws of no sex before marriage and divorce are allowed to get married – often in the same churches and temples that condemn them. People that can’t have children are allowed to marry, despite the so called reproductive imperative. The only people not allowed to get married are gay people and that is homophobia, pure and simple. Dress it up in fancy terms or religious dogma, it remains homophobia.

I suppose I am making a plea to everyone out there. If you believe in equality, we need you. We need you to fill in the consultation, lobby your MP, sign petitions and generally argue the case. We need you to take a stand, to say that this is just as important as other equality issues. Because unless someone is totally free, they are not free at all.

You can find the consultation here: