The first challenge to the ban on same-sex marriage at Westminster Registry Office on 19 March 1992. Photograph: Stephen Mayes
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It was a long fight for equal marriage – finally, it’s here

Peter Tatchell looks back on decades of campaigning that have finally resulted in the first same-sex marriages.

The battle for equal marriage in England and Wales did not begin a year or two ago. It started way back in 1992 when the LGBT direct action group OutRage! organised the first challenge to the ban on same-sex civil marriage. Five lesbian and gay couples from OutRage! filed marriage licence applications at Westminster Register Office in London on 19 March 1992. They were refused. But this was the opening shot in the long campaign for equal marriage.

Twelve years later, while most LGBT organisations accepted the second best option of civil partnerships when they were legislated in 2004, OutRage! continued the campaign for marriage equality. We said that civil partnerships were a valuable advance but not good enough. They were a well meaning but second class system that segregated same-sex couples legally – and denied them equality. Our view was shared by the parallel marriage equality campaign in Scotland, spearheaded by the Equality Network.

In the run-up to the 2010 general election, the Conservatives were the only major party with no gay rights policies. Together with Tamsin Omond, I organised a flashmob protest outside Tory election headquarters. As a result, David Cameron arranged for us to meet George Osborne and Theresa May. At this meeting, we urged them to agree to end the ban on same-sex marriage. They promised a review of the ban if they were elected.

Three months after the election, the Conservatives announced that they had done a review and had decided to keep the ban.

In response to this intransigence, later in 2010 we formed the broad-based Equal Love coalition, with support from cross-party MPs, MEPs, trade unions, the National Union of Students and secular, humanist and LGBT religious organisations.

The Equal Love campaign was dedicated to full equality in civil marriage and civil partnership law. We sought the repeal of the twin legal bans on same-sex civil marriages and opposite-sex civil partnerships; pressing for both systems to be open to all couples, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity.

That year, 2010, at the LGBT Pride London parade, I ambushed the newly-elected Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, and persuaded him, in front of the national media, to support same-sex marriage. I got him to publicly reiterate his commitment at a City Hall reception just a few days afterwards. Johnson's support was crucial to making it safe and respectable for Tory MPs to back marriage equality. Several did so, including Margot James, Chloe Smith and Mike Weatherley.

By late 2010, we had broad cross-party support: the Greens, Lib Dems and Labour officially endorsed equal marriage. But despite the support of individual Tory MPs, the Conservatives were still not on side.

I began intensively lobbying Tory MPs and party activists, arguing that same-sex marriage was consistent with Conservative values; that it chimed with their support for the institution of marriage – an argument that was later closely echoed by David Cameron in his pro-gay marriage speech to the 2011 Tory party conference.

When lobbying the Conservatives, I deliberately tried to frame the issue in terms of Conservative values which, although I do not share them, would be most likely to persuade more Tory MPs. I argued:

Marriage is a Conservative value. Tories encourage and approve loving, stable relationships because enduring care and commitment are good for individuals, families and for the well-being of society as a whole. Contrary to what some people say, gay marriage doesn’t undermine marriage, it strengthens it. At a time when large numbers of heterosexuals are deserting marriage and cohabitating instead, shouldn’t Conservatives see it as a good thing that many same-sex couples still believe in marriage and want to be part of it? The elimination of discrimination in marriage and partnership law is consistent with modern, liberal Conservatism, and with the Prime Minister’s personal pledge to eradicate homophobia and secure gay equality.

On 2 February 2011, the Equal Love campaign filed a legal case in the European Court of Human Rights. Brought by four same-sex couples and four opposite-sex couples, it sought to have the UK’s twin discriminations in civil marriage and civil partnership legislation declared illegal. Just as same-sex couples were barred from civil marriage, opposite-sex couples were (and still are) prohibited from having a civil partnership. Our aim was to end both forms of legal discrimination. You can see the Equal Love legal case here.

Up until this point, David Cameron and the Conservative Party did not back equal marriage.

The main gay rights lobbying group, Stonewall, also declined to support same-sex marriage until late October 2010. It said civil partnerships were sufficient. The CEO, Ben Summerskill, incorrectly claimed there was little support for it within the LGBT community and that many gay people opposed marriage. Both these claims were untrue.

As well as briefing against the Equal Love campaign, Stonewall also exaggerated the cost of equal marriage rights; making absurd, unfounded claims that it would cost billions of pounds. 

Stonewall’s refusal to support the campaign and its counter arguments were often quoted by homophobes to justify their opposition to same-sex marriage. This was hugely damaging.

Stonewall only switched to support equal marriage in late 2010, after a coalition of other organisations had done the groundwork and after they faced a huge LGBT backlash – including harsh criticism from two of their founders, Ian McKellen and Michael Cashman.

The Equal Love legal case in the European Court of Human Rights was significant. It was one of a number of factors that helped persuade the Conservatives to change their minds on same-sex marriage. Keen to detoxify the Tory brand, David Cameron did not want to go to the European Court of Human Rights to argue in favour of homophobic discrimination in marriage law. Moreover, he knew that we might win and did not want the embarrassment of being forced by Europe to legislate equal marriage, which would have been used against him by Euro-sceptics in his own party – and by UKIP.

Subsequently, three months after we filed the European Court case, the government agreed to consult on ending the ban on same-sex marriage. A few months after that – in October 2011– David Cameron made his now-famous Conservative Party conference speech where he said he supported same-sex marriage because he is a Conservative and because equal marriage is consistent with Conservative values – using very similar wording to the arguments that I had put to him and Conservative MPs the previous year. 

The formation of the Coalition for Equal Marriage and Out4Marriage gave big boost to the pro-gay marriage campaign. Their lobbying had a huge positive impact; giving the push for marriage equality new momentum, as did lobbying and reporting by Benjamin Cohen of Pink News.  

Securing same-sex marriage was ultimately the cumulative, collective effort of many LGBT organisations and tens of the thousands of grassroots LGBT people – and our many straight allies – who signed petitions, made submissions to the government, lobbied their MPs and wrote letters to newspapers. Bravo!

For more information about Peter Tatchell’s human rights campaigns and to make a donation: www.PeterTatchellFoundation.org

Peter Tatchell is Director of the Peter Tatchell Foundation, which campaigns for human rights the UK and worldwide: www.PeterTatchellFoundation.org His personal biography can be viewed here: www.petertatchell.net/biography.htm

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The Women's March against Trump matters – but only if we keep fighting

We won’t win the battle for progressive ideas if we don’t battle in the first place.

Arron Banks, UKIP-funder, Brexit cheerleader and Gibraltar-based insurance salesman, took time out from Trump's inauguration to tweet me about my role in tomorrow's Women’s March Conservative values are in the ascendancy worldwide. Thankfully your values are finished. . . good”.

Just what about the idea of women and men marching for human rights causes such ill will? The sense it is somehow cheeky to say we will champion equality whoever is in office in America or around the world. After all, if progressives like me have lost the battle of ideas, what difference does it make whether we are marching, holding meetings or just moaning on the internet?

The only anti-democratic perspective is to argue that when someone has lost the argument they have to stop making one. When political parties lose elections they reflect, they listen, they learn but if they stand for something, they don’t disband. The same is true, now, for the broader context. We should not dismiss the necessity to learn, to listen, to reflect on the rise of Trump – or indeed reflect on the rise of the right in the UK  but reject the idea that we have to take a vow of silence if we want to win power again.

To march is not to ignore the challenges progressives face. It is to start to ask what are we prepared to do about it.

Historically, conservatives have had no such qualms about regrouping and remaining steadfast in the confidence they have something worth saying. In contrast, the left has always been good at absolving itself of the need to renew.

We spend our time seeking the perfect candidates, the perfect policy, the perfect campaign, as a precondition for action. It justifies doing nothing except sitting on the sidelines bemoaning the state of society.

We also seem to think that changing the world should be easier than reality suggests. The backlash we are now seeing against progressive policies was inevitable once we appeared to take these gains for granted and became arrogant and exclusive about the inevitability of our worldview. Our values demand the rebalancing of power, whether economic, social or cultural, and that means challenging those who currently have it. We may believe that a more equal world is one in which more will thrive, but that doesn’t mean those with entrenched privilege will give up their favoured status without a fight or that the public should express perpetual gratitude for our efforts via the ballot box either.  

Amongst the conferences, tweets and general rumblings there seem three schools of thought about what to do next. The first is Marxist  as in Groucho revisionism: to rise again we must water down our principles to accommodate where we believe the centre ground of politics to now be. Tone down our ideals in the hope that by such acquiescence we can eventually win back public support for our brand – if not our purpose. The very essence of a hollow victory.

The second is to stick to our guns and stick our heads in the sand, believing that eventually, when World War Three breaks out, the public will come grovelling back to us. To luxuriate in an unwillingness to see we are losing not just elected offices but the fight for our shared future.

But what if there really was a third way? It's not going to be easy, and it requires more than a hashtag or funny t-shirt. It’s about picking ourselves up, dusting ourselves down and starting to renew our call to arms in a way that makes sense for the modern world.

For the avoidance of doubt, if we march tomorrow and then go home satisfied we have made our point then we may as well not have marched at all. But if we march and continue to organise out of the networks we make, well, then that’s worth a Saturday in the cold. After all, we won’t win the battle of ideas, if we don’t battle.

We do have to change the way we work. We do have to have the courage not to live in our echo chambers alone. To go with respect and humility to debate and discuss the future of our communities and of our country.

And we have to come together to show there is a willingness not to ask a few brave souls to do that on their own. Not just at election times, but every day and in every corner of Britain, no matter how difficult it may feel.

Saturday is one part of that process of finding others willing not just to walk a mile with a placard, but to put in the hard yards to win the argument again for progressive values and vision. Maybe no one will show up. Maybe not many will keep going. But whilst there are folk with faith in each other, and in that alternative future, they’ll find a friend in me ready to work with them and will them on  and then Mr Banks really should be worried.