I went into politics because I wanted to change our country for the better; in some small way, I wanted to do my bit to make a difference. The new Same Sex Marriage law is a small change which has the potential to make a big difference. It gives same sex couples the right to marry – so important in its own right – and hopefully will change attitudes towards homosexuality. We have come a long way since a time when people were persecuted and imprisoned for their sexuality and I hope, as a result of this change in the law, the young LGBT+ community will no longer feel they have to keep their sexuality a secret or try to hide it. And the more progress we make on LGBT+ rights, the more equal and tolerant our society will become. No longer will people be treated as second class citizens under the law.
Labour introduced civil partnerships, which was a step forward, but they balked at introducing true equality. I felt strongly that we should introduce equal marriage, which was my party’s policy. People said it would be hard to change. But I had the support of principled campaigners such as Julian Huppert, your local MP, who was a passionate supporter of same sex marriage and voted strongly for this to become law.
I started the government consultation process in 2012 but the Bill faced huge opposition from the Tories and some Labour MPs. This was an issue which deeply divided the Conservative party and caused anguish in the Labour ranks. Three Labour MPs signed a letter saying the government had “no mandate to redefine marriage”. We were told we couldn’t deliver this legislation but we knew in the fight for a fairer more equal society we couldn’t fail to deliver it.
As the Bill made its passage through Parliament, almost half of all Conservative MPs, including 10 ministers, tried to block the reforms. We saw heated exchanges across the Chamber and amendment after amendment to try to halt it. At each crucial step, there was fierce opposition played out not only in Parliament but across the world’s media as well. Finally the legislation passed with an overwhelming majority of 205, winning support from 366 cross-party MPs. By the time this Bill had become law, the other parties were trying to claim credit for it.
The journey to achieve the law on same sex marriage was a fantastic personal experience for me as well. I felt privileged to receive awards from both Pink News and Stonewall in recognition of the work that I had done. And I received the title ‘Politician of the Year’ from Attitude Magazine in 2012.
But while we have made huge progress in this country in changing attitudes towards homosexuality, there is still a great amount of discrimination across the world and people are facing desperate situations. During my time as International Development Minister I made it one of the department’s priorities to strengthen global LGBT+ rights. The department’s strategy has rightly been led by local LGBT+ campaigners in each country and we were asked to take a subtle approach. So I raised concerns privately with African ministers and prime ministers and met with LGBT+ groups. Our new strategy will take this work further and I hope that we will soon see a global change in attitudes so that the world will be a better place.
Lynne Featherstone (MP & Former Equalities Minister)