Barring last-minute surprises, the House of Lords will pass the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill later today. It should then be a short hop via royal assent to the statute book.
The news will be a cause for celebration. But it must not be a cause for complacency. Homophobia isn’t going away. Indeed, for the bill’s more extreme opponents, its success will be a spur to ever more vocal and harmful homophobic action.
I know these anti-equality campaigners well. I used to be one of them.
It’s over a decade since I was encouraging my fellow Christians to reject same-sex relationships. But while many Christians have become more inclusive, hardcore opponents have stepped up the fight. Frightened by the apparent decline of Christianity in Britain, they have latched onto homosexuality as a symbol of the tide they are trying to turn. This motivation, and the passion and fear that lie behind it, are easily overlooked by secular commentators. Some seem to think that we can simply wait for homophobia to die out.
I wish such people had been with me three years ago, when I sat at an election hustings organised by socially conservative campaign groups such as Christian Concern. I saw women in their early twenties cheering viciously bigoted comments. I listened to a young graduate denouncing a Christian Labour MP for supporting LGBT rights. I watched 300 people applaud former councillor Alan Craig as he said that civil partnerships threaten “the safety of children”.
These groups are not irrelevant. In 2010, a campaign by Christian Concern led to the Lords watering down the Equality Bill. There has been an upsurge in groups such as the Core Issues Trust offering “therapy” to “heal” LGBT people. When you read media reports about “Christians”, it is too often groups such as these, who are not even representative of evangelicals, let alone Christians generally. But they are media-savvy and every bit of coverage adds to a narrative of “Gays v. Christians”. This helps them to promote one of their key ideas – that “Christians” should be allowed to discriminate (when running guest houses or working as civil registrars) as a matter of “religious liberty”.
Christian Concern’s latest “action alert” email to supporters was headlined “It’s not over yet”. Their message will be the same after today’s vote. I predict it will take them only a few days to announce some sort of legal challenge to the bill.
It will surely fail, but court cases are their favourite tactic for gaining media coverage. Their supporters will have more chances to compare same-sex marriage with polygamy, incest or marrying your dog. And more young people will be hurt by what they hear in the media as they struggle with their sexuality.
If homophobia is to be defeated, secular LGBT campaigners must work with their religious allies to challenge the “Gays v. Christians” narrative, to undermine the homophobes’ claim to represent Christianity and to make clear that there are religious people on all sides of the debate.
Today’s vote is an important step, but it’s only a step. Now is not the time to take a break.