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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Why Jeremy Corbyn’s evolution on Brexit matters for the Scottish Labour party

Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard, an ideological ally of Corbyn, backs staying in the customs union. 

Evolution. A long, slow, almost imperceptible process driven by brutal competition in a desperate attempt to adapt to survive. An accurate description then by Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell, of Labour’s shifting, chimera of a Brexit policy. After an away day that didn’t decamp very far at all, there seems to have been a mutation in Labour’s policy on customs union. Even McDonnell, a long-term Eurosceptic, indicated that Labour may support Tory amendments when the report stages of the customs and trade bills are finally timetabled by the government (currently delayed) to remain in either “The” or “A” customs union.

This is a victory of sorts for Europhiles in the Shadow Cabinet like Emily Thornberry and Keir Starmer. But it is particularly a victory for Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard. A strong ally of Jeremy Corbyn who comes from the same Bennite tradition, Leonard broke cover last month to call for exactly such a change to policy on customs union.

Scotland has a swathe of marginal Labour-SNP seats. Its voters opted voted by a majority in every constituency to Remain. While the Scottish National Party has a tendency to trumpet this as evidence of exceptionalism – Scotland as a kind-of Rivendell to England’s xenophobic Mordor – it’s clear that a more Eurocentric, liberal hegemony dominates Scottish politics. Scotland’s population is also declining and it has greater need of inward labour through migration than England. It is for these reasons that the SNP has mounted a fierce assault on Labour’s ephemeral EU position.

At first glance, the need for Labour to shift its Brexit position is not as obvious as Remainers might have it. As the Liberal Democrat experience in last year’s general election demonstrates, if you want to choose opposing Brexit as your hill to die on… then die you well may. This was to some extent replicated in the recent Scottish Labour Leadership race. Anas Sarwar, the centrist challenger, lost after making Brexit an explicit dividing line between himself and the eventual winner, Leonard. The hope that a juggernaut of Remainer fury might coalesce as nationalist resentment did in 2015 turned out to be a dud. This is likely because for many Remainers, Europe is not as high on their list of concerns as other matters like the NHS crisis. They may, however, care about it however when the question is forced upon them.

And it very well might be forced. One day later this year, the shape of a deal on phase two of the negotiations will emerge and Parliament will have to vote, once and for all, to accept or reject a deal. This is both a test and an incredible political opportunity. Leonard, a Scottish Labour old-timer, believes a deal will be rejected and lead to a general election.

If Labour is to win such an election resulting from a parliamentary rejection of the Brexit deal, it will need many of those marginal seats in Scotland. The SNP is preparing by trying to box Labour in. Last month its Westminster representatives laid a trap. They invited Corbyn to take part in anti-Brexit talks of opposition parties he had no choice but to reject. In Holyrood, Nicola Sturgeon has been ripping into the same flank that Sarwar opened against Richard Leonard in the leadership contest, branding Labour’s Brexit position “feeble”. At the same time the Scottish government revealed a devastating impact assessment to accompany the negative forecasts leaked from the UK government. If Labour is leading a case against a “bad deal”,  it cannot afford to be seen to be SNP-lite.

The issue will likely come to a head at the Scottish Labour Conference early next month, since local constituency parties have already sent a number of pro-EU and single market motions to be debated there. They could be seen as a possible challenge to the leadership’s opposition to the single market or a second referendum. That is, If these motions make it to debate, unlike at national Labour Conference in 2017, where there seemed to be an organised attempt to prevent division.

When Leonard became leader, he stressed co-operation with the Westminster leadership. Still, unlike the dark “Branch Office” days of the recent past, Scottish Labour seems to be wielding some influence in the wider party again. And Scottish Labour figures will find allies down south. In January, Thornberry used a Fabian Society speech in Edinburgh, that Enlightenment city, to call for a dose of Scottish internationalism in foreign policy. With a twinkle in her eye, she fielded question after question about Brexit. “Ah…Brexit,” she joked. “I knew we’d get there eventually”. Such was Thornberry’s enthusiasm that she made the revealing aside that: “If I was not in the Leadership, then I’d probably be campaigning to remain in the European Union.”