Fascinators and neo-Puritanism: why I’m conflicted about marriage equality

Is it right to accept something you want from someone who you know gives it with the most cynical of motives, asks Alex Andreou.

I have kept My Big Fat Greek Gob shut on the issue of same sex marriage. I have done so, in the knowledge that many people up and down the country desire it, some of them dear friends, and I had nothing helpful to add. I had nothing to add because my objections had only been general and my own Big Fat Greek Wedding a sadly diminishing future prospect. But I can do so no longer in good conscience.

My general objections, feel free to ignore. They extend to little more than a non-specific sense of dread that at the heart of this policy is a callous attempt to create economic value where it didn’t exist; to target the disposable income of gay couples and boost growth with a surge in the sales of clothes, gravy boats, novelty fascinators and other assorted meaningless paraphernalia.

I also fear that it will create an added pressure to conform. I recall fighting the early battles in Greece in the late eighties, when we occupied Exarheia Square, hand-in-hand with transsexual prostitutes and militant dykes; the first Pride march; being chased by police and beaten with clubs. What we were fighting for was an acceptance of all different ways of expressing love and sexuality; it was a desire for more, not less, sexual liberation. White picket fences and registration lists could not have been further from our minds.

What we have instead is an attempt to absorb that sexual freedom into conformism. Instead of dragging the world into liberation, we have somehow managed to drag the LGBT community into neo-Puritanism.

Having said all this, the issue of same sex marriage is at its heart an issue of civil rights and fundamental equalities.  And so, necessarily, these general concerns must pale into insignificance and I offer my support to all those fighting for it.

My specific objection on the other hand is much more pressing and I ask you to consider it with care. Is it right to accept something you want from someone that you know gives it with the most cynical of motives?

Those who oppose it within the party leading the coalition government speak of people like me with scorn. Why is the government “so hell-bent on upsetting so many thousands of our citizens in normal marriages?" asks Bob Stewart MP. The Telegraph wails against “gay wedding” hypocrites who are ignoring the will of decent people.

And what of those who support it? I find David Cameron’s formulation of the reasoning behind the policy – echoed almost verbatim by Maria Miller – very interesting: "I'm in favour of gay marriage, because I'm a massive supporter of marriage”. To me this is tantamount to saying “I support Rosa Parks’s fight against racial segregation, because I am a huge fan of buses.”

In short, my concern is that both support and opposition for marriage equality coming from the Tory benches is steeped in homophobia – expressed alternately in malevolent or benevolent terms.

“So what?” you might say. Issues of fundamental freedom are issues of principles. I have a niggling doubt that doing the right thing for the wrong reasons is not enough. It will serve to legitimise the pseudo-liberal credentials of a government that is simultaneously punishing the sick, the homeless, the unemployed, the poor, women, immigrants and every other minority on which they can lay their austere hands.

If we accept their condescension unquestioningly, we become complicit in a strategy designed to win votes and perpetuate a deeply right-wing party, many members of which twenty years ago were ordering the police to raid gay bars.

We risk becoming the latest in a sequence of elaborately constructed lies; hug a hoodie, hug a husky, hug a homo. Hug anyone who will let you and get re-elected.

And that I do have a problem with.

A very civil partnership. Photograph: Getty Images

Greek-born, Alex Andreou has a background in law and economics. He runs the Sturdy Beggars Theatre Company and blogs here You can find him on twitter @sturdyalex

OLI SCARFF/AFP/Getty Images
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Harriet Harman: “Theresa May is a woman, but she is no sister”

The former deputy leader of the Labour Party urged women to unite across the divided party.

The day-long women's conference is usually the friendliest place at Labour party conference. Not only does it have a creche and a very clear emphasis on accessibility, but everybody who attends starts from a place of fundamental agreement before the sessions have even begun. For that reason, it's often ignored by political hacks in search of a juicy splits story (especially since it takes place on Saturday, before the "real" conference action really gets underway). But with the party divided and the abuse of women on and off social media a big concern, there was a lot to say.

This year, kick off was delayed because of the announcement of Jeremy Corbyn's victory in the leadership election. The cheer for the renewed leader in the packed women's conference hall was far bigger than that in the main hall, although not everybody was clapping. After a sombre tribute to the murdered Labour MP and former chair of the Labour Women's Network Jo Cox, Harriet Harman took to the stage.

As a long-time campaigner for women's rights, veteran MP and former deputy leader of the Labour Party, Harman is always popular with women's conference - even if her position on the current leadership and her status as a former Blairite minister places her out of sync with some of the audience. Rather than merely introducing the first speaker as the agenda suggested, Harman took the opportunity to make a coded dig at Corbyn by doing a little opposition of her own.

"Theresa May is a woman, but she is no sister," she declared, going on to describe the way that May, as shadow spokesperson for women and equalities under William Hague, had been a "drag anchor" on Harman's own efforts to enact pro-women reforms while Labour were in government. The Thatcher comparison for May is ubiquitous already, but Harman made it specific, saying that like Thatcher, Theresa May is a woman prime minister who is no friend to women.

Harman then turned her attention to internal Labour party affairs, reassuring the assembled women that a divided party didn't have to mean that no advances could be made. She gestured towards the turmoil in Labour in the 1980s, saying that "no matter what positions women were taking elsewhere in the party, we worked together for progress". Her intervention chimes with the recent moves by high profile former frontbenchers like Chuka Umunna and Yvette Cooper to seek select committee positions, and Andy Burnham's campaign to become mayor of Greater Manchester.

Harman's message to women's conference was clear: the time for opposition to Corbyn is over now - we have to live with this leadership, but we can't let the equalities legacy of the Blair years be subsumed in the meantime. She ended by saying that "we have many leaders in the Labour party," pointing to Jess Phillips, the chair of the women's PLP, and Angela Rayner, shadow minister for education, women and equalities. Like Burnham, Cooper et al, Harman has clearly decided that Corbyn can't be unseated, so ways must be found to work around him.

Rayner followed Harman onto the stage. As one of Corbyn's shadow ministerial team, Rayner is far from in agreement with Harman on everything, and rather than speak about any specific policy aims, she addressed women's conference on the subject of her personal journey to the front bench. She described how her mother was "born on the largest council estate in Europe and was one of twelve children" and "never felt loved and didn’t know how to love, because hugs, cuddles and any signs of affection just wasn’t the norm". She went on to say "mum won't mind me saying this - to this day she cannot read and write". Her mother was in the audience, attending her first Labour conference.

As a former care worker who became a mother herself when she was just 16, Rayner is a rarity at the top of Labour politics. She told the Guardian in 2012 that she is used to being underestimated because of her youth, her gender and her northern accent: "I'm a pretty young woman, lots of red hair, and everyone expects me to be stupid when I walk into a meeting for the first time. I'm not stupid and most people know that now, but I still like to be underestimated because it gives me an edge. It gives me a bit of stealth."

The mass shadow cabinet resignations in June propelled Rayner to the top sooner than an MP only elected in 2015 might have expected, and she has yet to really prove her mettle on the grind of parliamentary opposition and policy detail. But if Labour is ever to win back the seats in the north where Ukip and Brexit are now strong, it's the likes of Rayner that will do it. As Harriet Harman herself shows, the women and equalities brief is a good place to start - for even in turbulent, divided times for Labour, women's conference is still a place where people can find common ground.

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman.