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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 first challenge to the ban on same-sex marriage at Westminster Registry Office on 19 March 1992. Photograph: Stephen Mayes
The first challenge to the ban on same-sex marriage at Westminster Registry Office on 19 March 1992. Photograph: Stephen Mayes

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