Homophobia is alive and well

It’s been a good Christmas for opponents of marriage equality. They managed to make headlines on both Christmas Day and Boxing Day.

First, there was the news of comments made by Vincent Nichols, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Westminster, who said that proposals for legal recognition of same-sex marriage are “undemocratic”. His remarks achieved greater prominence because of inaccurate reports that he had made them in his Christmas sermon, whereas most of them were in an interview with the BBC at around the same time.

Second, Paul Coleridge, a High Court judge, said that same-sex marriage is a “minority issue” that affected only “0.1% of the population”. It is not clear where this figure has come from, nor why Coleridge thinks that the rights of a minority should be less important than the rights of others.

Although Colerdige’s comments were less well reported than Nichols’, they are considerably more confused and offensive. At one point, he used the bizarre term “same-sex people”. I’m guessing this refers to people in same-sex relationships, or possibly to gay and bisexual people generally, but it’s not clear.

The Roman Catholic Bishop of Salisbury, Mark Davies, made comments that were far more extreme, but less reported. He said that fascism and communism had been threats to “Christian civilisation” and that now it is threatened by same-sex marriage. Comparing marriage equality to fascism is all the more repugnant given the number of gay and bisexual people murdered by the Nazis. Not only did Davies make these comments in a Christmas sermon; he appears to have publicised them to the media in advance.

After all this came some good news. On Thursday – the day after Boxing Day – the latest ICM poll showed public backing for equal marriage by two to one (62% in favour, 31% against, 7% don’t know).

This undermines Nichols’ claim that the proposal is “undemocratic”. However, Nichols, like many other opponents of marriage equality, keeps pointing out that most people who responded to the government’s consultation on same-sex marriage are opposed to it. This is partly due to the efforts of anti-equality campaigners to mobilise sections of Christian opinion against the idea (in some cases, by whipping up fear about churches being forced to host same-sex marriage, a policy that nobody is calling for). However, it does seem that supporters of equality have a majority when the public are asked about it, but opponents may have a majority amongst those who feel strongly enough about it to speak up pro-actively.

This is a problem. Last week’s headlines are a reminder that the anti-equality camp are prepared to make themselves heard as loudly as possible. This ranges from the relatively mild (but nonetheless discriminatory) arguments of Vincent Nichols to the extreme comments of Mark Davies.

In contrast, it seems quite a lot of supporters of equal marriage are becoming complacent. I know a number of pro-equality campaigners who seem to assume that the battle is already won. A member of one of the faith groups that backs same-sex marriage said a few weeks ago that they had “achieved all that we set out to do” – missing the point that the bill has not even been debated in the Commons yet, let alone become law.

Of course, there are some people – both religious and secular – who are working as hard as ever for marriage equality, and who know that even this is only one part of a wider struggle. Sadly, there are also campaigners who appear naive about the chance of the bill being watered down or thrown out by the Lords, and seem to have unrealistic faith in David Cameron’s support.

I often hear people talk about homophobia as if it were dying out, as if it is simply a matter of waiting for it to expire completely. They seem unaware of the dedicated work of socially conservative lobby groups, the growth in “therapy” to “heal” gay, lesbian and bisexual people and the successes that some campaigners have already achieved against equality laws.

This week’s comments by the likes of Paul Coleridge and Mark Davies are a reminder that opposition to civil rights is alive and well. If we are not prepared to speak up as loudly and clearly as the homophobes, I fear that the battle for marriage equality will be lost.

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(c) Symon Hill is associate director of Ekklesia and author of The No-Nonsense Guide to Religion, which can be bought at http://www.newint.org/books/no-nonsense-guides/religion.

For more of Symon's writing, please visit http://www.symonhill.wordpress.com.

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