31 May 2009

Continuing the fight: Proposition 8 demonstrates how easily our hard won rights can be undermined

First posted on Progress Online.

The Californian Supreme Court delivered a devastating setback to proponents of marriage equality on Tuesday when it ruled that the November ballot measure – Proposition 8 – which amended the Californian State Constitution to ban same sex marriage, was valid.

The ruling sparked demonstrations throughout the state of California where supporters and celebrities held vigils but were met with noticeable silence from the White House, whose rhetoric on gay rights has yet to be matched with tangible action.

Many in the campaign for marriage equality will now wonder where their movement goes from here, with the next Californian gubernational elections not scheduled until November 2010 and with little indication that any ballot would produce a different result.

In the short term there is no doubt that the ruling is a debilitating set back to those 18,000 same sex married couples in California as well as supporters of equality right across the United States. More than two dozen states now have constitutional amendments that define marriage as a union between a man and woman - and the South and the West appear to be overwhelmingly against any change to this definition of marriage. The pattern has been that every time voters have a say on this matter, they choose to vote overwhelmingly against the rights of lesbian and gay partners.

This fight will continue in California and across the United States and Tuesday will mark a new chapter in the campaign for marriage equality. At the same time as the ruling was being announced in California, President Obama was announcing his first nomination to the Supreme Court in the shape of Sonia Sotomayor. Although her stance on gay marriage is not yet widely known, her empathy with minority rights has been documented following comments which stated that her experience as a minority allowed her to draw better conclusions than those of a white male.

The ruling is also likely to galvanize the campaign for same sex marriage rights. Any sense of inevitability that may have set in following landmark decisions to legalize same sex unions in five states - Massachusetts, Iowa, Vermont, Connecticut and Maine (at least three others, New York, New Jersey and New Hampshire, are seriously considering the matter) - have now been banished.

This lesson from California should serve as a stark warning to those who value our hard won equality in Britain. A friend of mine who worked on the ‘No on Prop 8’ campaign based in San Francisco repeatedly decried the complacency she met on a daily basis. People could not comprehend that California, the home of Harvey Milk and the cradle of American liberalism, could remove the civil rights of an entire group of people in the state. Hard won rights can so easily be undermined; with the far right on the march in Britain and Europe we should never assume that our remarkable progress is forever embedded.

With a Conservative government potentially less than a year away, we should not forget that Cameron’s warm words do not hide his party’s voting record. According to Liberal Democrat research, 80% of the current Shadow Cabinet has voted against gay rights in the ten years since Labour took office. Cameron has called the gay rights movement a "fringe agenda" and he led his Members in voting against protecting lesbian and gay people from those who call for their execution. Cameron’s party Chair, Eric Pickles, has never voted on gay equality and Sayeeda Warsi, his Shadow Minister for Community Cohesion and Social Action, has accused Labour of “allowing school children to be propositioned for homosexual relationships”, and went on to denounce the “promotion of homosexuality that undermines family life”.

I don’t imagine for a second that David Cameron would walk confidently in to Downing Street hell bent on undoing equality legislation, but when in Government, political deals have to be made and it will be the reversal of gay rights offered as appeasement to anxious backbenchers.

There is little time for complacency when there is still so much to do. Gay rights are undermined and threatened in many parts of Europe, civil partnerships are not recognised across the continent and homophobia remains rife in schools. These are the challenges we now face and we will only continue our remarkable progress by ensuring we have friends in government – both in Britain and in Europe – and not the far right.

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