News, studies, political and social commentary brought to you by our community writers - this is an area for education and debate.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

The Accidental Social Warrior

Once upon a time I wrote a letter to a couple I had never met. Through a potent combination of personal conviction, public empathy and social networking, that letter was read over 50,000 times in just a few days. All of a sudden, I found myself speaking up for people that I had never met, receiving phone-calls from journalists and wondering where a week of my life had gone.

The reaction to my letter was overwhelmingly positive; people from all over the world have written to me to say “thank you” for articulating what they could not or telling me that they would stand beside me in the fight for equality.

Even those few people who wrote to me saying that they disagreed with my views did so in a manner that was respectful. And thus, in some strange way that is both typical and atypical of the internet age in which we live, we used our keyboards to ‘virtually’ shake hands and agree to disagree.

Gradually, as they tend to do, things settled back down, but my life changed. I got a brilliant new job, I campaigned for equal marriage at the Scottish Parliament and had a full page article written about my letter in a local newspaper. I even got to meet Sofia and Georgey from The L Project at L Fest!

As a result of these various goings-on, I found myself being presented with a kind of badge of honour from my family, friends and some people online; I was the ‘equality girl’, the ‘letter lady’ (lady, ha! As if!). The ones who knew they could get away with it called me a celebrity (you don’t want to know what I called them back!). But my favourite of all was when a friend dubbed me a ‘social warrior’. I can live with that, I thought. If in years to come there is a stone somewhere engraved “Julie Price, 1986-20XX, Social Warrior”, with me lying underneath it, I reckon I would be pretty proud. And with that in mind, despite never expecting or intending to get myself in so deep, I knew that I had to keep speaking up for what I believed in and see this thing through to the end.

My most recent foray in this exercise was attending BBC Three’s panel debate show “Free Speech” – think “Question Time” for the under 30s. Rumour had it that one of the topics up for discussion was equal marriage. Being quite well-versed in that debate these days, I thought I would apply for a ticket. Each audience member was asked to submit two potential questions in advance; I wrote one on equal marriage and the other on Scottish Independence. Somewhat ironically, with around 70 audience members and only 5 questions being chosen, my Independence question was picked to be asked on live TV!

A girl named Emma who I had been chatting to since I arrived at the venue was chosen to ask her question on equal marriage. Her question was “Do you believe that religious bodies are being marginalised by the introduction of equal marriage in Scotland?” Naturally, I was absolutely gagging to get involved in the debate. Having done my homework, I knew that one member of the panel in particular was going to rile me up.

Milo Yiannopoulos was described to the audience as a gay, Catholic blogger. Fair enough. But a quick Google search before the show led to me to his blog, and subsequently, to the rather unpleasant experience of reading some of the things he had written about equal marriage.

My initial reaction – one that I cannot say has changed since sharing a room with him – is that he is a provocateur, plain and simple. A quick scan of the ‘testimonials’ page of his blog seems to confirm that. “An example?”, I hear you cry! How about we start with the title of his most recent blog: “The Lingering Stench of ‘Gay Marriage’”? Charming, I’m sure you’ll agree. But for me, his words ran deeper than that.

It is one thing to be provocative; that can often stimulate some very interesting debate. It is quite another thing, however, to scaremonger. Milo stated in the above-mentioned article that “as soon as this hits the statute book, people are going to invoke human rights legislation to force churches to allow gay marriages on their premises”. Let’s not forget, gay and lesbian couples are not the only ones prohibited from marrying in the Catholic Church. According to the Catholics United for the Faith website, “[t]he Church has held consistently from Her beginning that there can be no remarriage after divorce. While certain circumstances allow for divorce, no circumstance allows for remarriage.”

If this is true, that the Catholic Church will not remarry divorcees, one would assume, by Milo’s reasoning, that there would be examples aplenty of people “hitting the statute books” to challenge this rule. Now I do not claim to be a lawyer nor a legal expert, but I have experience of researching legal matters from my days as a Criminology student, and a search of the internet using a variety of key words and search terms failed to bring to light any obvious examples of a divorced Catholic suing their church on the basis that they could not remarry into it.

I concede the possibility that I may have missed something, but the Faith in Marriage Facebook group also kindly searched upon my request and they too drew a blank. The point here isn’t so much that there won’t be any legal challenges – no one can say that with any certainty – than it is that the Church is not going to be bombarded with couples wishing to be married into their faith, which would, Milo argues, cause the organisation to “shut up shop and padlock its churches or simply refuse to conduct marriages at all.”

It might just be me, but I find it rather strange how often it is argued that couples who will have just been given equal rights to marry the person they love would want that ceremony to be carried out by a person or institution that not only fundamentally disapproves of their relationship, but has gone so far as to publically wage a war upon it. To put in in lighter terms, in my opinion, that would be equivalent to a vegan choosing to hold their birthday dinner at an all-you-can-eat steakhouse. I think it is more likely that these couple will choose to find an individual, religion or organisation who sees the worth and goodness of their relationship and wants to unite them in marriage and share their special day with them.

But back to “Free Speech”. It was no surprise to me that as soon as Emma delivered her question and Milo was asked to comment, I found myself bouncing up and down in my seat, hand waving in the air, trying to get the attention of the host, Jake Humphries. My first problem was that Milo neglected to account for the assurances repeatedly given that religious bodies against equal marriage and individuals against equal marriage who are members of those religious bodies who approve of it will both be protected through the Equalities Act 2010 (with amendments to be made to give extra assurance). In fact, he argued the opposite, despite an audience member from the Equality Network correcting him.

Once again we were presented with the “churches will be forced” fallacy. As I said, the Catholic Church is not currently “forced” to marry divorcees, or non-Catholics for that matter, so why would they be forced to marry same-sex couples? This, however, was not my main point of contention; mainly since anyone involved in the equal marriage debate has heard it a hundred times before.

The part of Milo’s opinion that really got to me; and which was presumably considered informed, judging by the fact he was invited onto the panel; was this:

“Nobody wants it, nobody’s really asking for it and it doesn’t matter…”

Let’s break that down a little.

 “Nobody wants it”: If nobody wants it then why are couples, individuals, charities and campaigning groups spending countless time and valuable energy writing letters, lobbying MPs and attending meetings, rallies, fundraisers and protests to gain it? That statement is simply inaccurate.

“Nobody’s really asking for it”: Well, that’s kind of the same thing, isn’t it? I am asking for it, am I nobody? I may not want to get married today or tomorrow, but I want to have equal rights so that when the time comes, I need only worry about the things that all other couples have to; the venue, the cake, the table-plan and so on; than whether I am actually legally permitted or not. Thousands of others, gay and straight, are asking for it too. Are they all “nobody”? Again, this is just wrong.

Finally, my personal favourite, “It doesn’t really matter”: Equal marriage doesn’t matter. To me, that statement is a direct descendent of the view that equality doesn’t matter. If equality doesn’t matter in our modern society, it isn’t really that modern at all, is it?

For me, the issue runs far deeper than equal marriage on its own; it is about equality as a whole. I have seen people compare the fight for equal marriage to the fight against racial segregation; a subject that most people see as being an example of the shameful inequalities of our past. And subsequently, I have read reactions to this argument ranging from agreement to anger to disbelief that the two should be compared. For me personally, this is a valid comparison.

If you strip it down to its fundamental components, the two are one and the same. Rosa Parks was legally allowed to travel on the same bus as white people, but she was never considered equal whilst on it. She was told where she could and could not sit and this was dictated by the colour of her skin. At the current time in the UK, gay and lesbian couples can enter into Civil Partnerships, which have the same legal entitlements as a marriage; in that respect, they can “ride on the same bus” as heterosexual couples. But they are not equal; they cannot have a marriage, which means that they are currently only permitted to sit in the designated “Civil Partnership” seats, reserved solely for gay and lesbian couples. If you believe this to be incorrect, if you believe that gay and lesbian people are equal and that the comparison is false, ask yourself why they cannot marry either in a civil ceremony or a religious one conducted by a consenting church or organisation? You cannot argue for keeping this distinction whilst also arguing that gay and lesbian couples are equal in this matter; the two are simply incompatible.

That is why, on the subject of equal marriage, Milo Yiannopoulos and I will never see eye to eye. And you know what; that is absolutely fine. The deeper you get into a debate like this, the more you will find people who disagree with you, and that should not be a problem, as long as the discussion is conducted in a respectful way. The problem I have is when opinions are dressed up as facts – and I am conscious to always try and distinguish the two in my own arguments.

Worse still is when a falsity is presented as a fact. A prime example of this is a Twitter discussion I found myself in recently which resulted in me being told that “gay marriage” shouldn’t be allowed in the Catholic Church because “thou shalt not lie with another man” is one of the Ten Commandments. I get that it is stated elsewhere in the Bible, but it’s definitely not one of the “Big Ten”, and thus it was a fallacy presented as fact (despite my attempt to correct her)…

It is encounters such as these that cause me frustration, hurt and, I admit, sometimes even anger. It comes when you know in your heart that what you are fighting for is right and good and true; and it is not only for yourself and the gay and lesbian couples who wish to marry now. More importantly, it is for all of those teenagers sitting in their bedrooms, beating themselves up both mentally and physically because society tells them they are different. They don’t want that to be true and so, too often, they look for a way to escape, and tragically some find it before they come to terms with things and realise that they are perfect just as they are. And it is also for those not even born yet; conceived neither theoretically nor biologically. None of them will choose to be ‘different’, so why should they be treated differently?

When things get tough and I face opposition from people I know and people I don’t, I try to bear this thought it mind… If I keep fighting this fight, through the good times and the bad, there will come a moment in the not too distance future when all children living in the UK will have been born into a society that will allow them to marry the person that, as an adult, they come to love; irrespective of gender. And the only time they will realise that things weren’t always this way is when they read it in their history books or watch documentaries about it on TV. 

You can follow Julie Price on twitter.