This was originally posted on Sian’s website on the 10th February 2013
When I was eight years old, I learnt about Martin Luther King’s ‘I had a dream’ speech at school. As part of our learning, we were asked to draw and write what we would include in our speech if we were to make it today (today being 1993).At this point, my mum had been with her partner for four years. Twenty years later, they’re still together. But it was around the age of 8 that I started to realise that not all families who didn’t live with their dad had two mums instead. It was also around this age that I began to understand that having two mums instead was not always smiled upon by the rest of the world.
So, burgeoning political noise-maker that I was at eight, I drew a picture of two women sat in bed together with two children and I wrote:
‘I have a dream that two women will be able to live in the same house and sleep in the same bed and no-one will mind.’
My poor mother. I fear she was rather mortified at being so conclusively outed by her eight year old political daughter. But she never said anything. I think it was more important to hide any embarrassment than to let me see that other people might think there was something to be embarrassed by.
Well. This week, when ‘the ayes had it’, I remembered this long-forgotten episode and tears welled in my eyes. They’re welling now, actually. Because this week, that dream I had as an eight year old girl came a step, maybe even a leap, closer to coming true.
As I say, and as regular readers will know, my parents split up when I was four and I was raised by my mum and her partner, with regular access and a good relationship with my dad and his wife.
Since then, I went to school during Section 28 and learnt that it was thought by teachers that talking about a family like mine was illegal. There was never any discussion in all my school years that a family could look like mine, or even that it was ok for a family to look like mine. Section 28 was repealed in November 2003 – my final year of Sixth Form. It is difficult to explain just how damaging that law was for gay children who were made to feel completely invisible, made to feel like their lives were shameful and hidden. It is difficult to explain how, as a child in a gay family, you could be made to feel that your family simply doesn’t exist.
So when they repealed Section 28 it was too late for my schooling but a fantastic step towards ending an institutionalised homophobia that so effectively silenced and isolated young people.
That was Section 28. Throughout my childhood It was still illegal for gay people to adopt. It was still illegal for gay men to have consensual sex aged 16, the same age as a straight couple. There were so many laws that silenced, discriminated against and made miserable the lives of gay people. Then, throughout the Labour years, most of those laws went away. Section 28 in 2003, allowing gay and lesbian people in the military in 2000, equalising age of consent laws in 2001, adoption in 2002, civil partnerships in 2005. It all happened very quickly in lots of ways. It all happened when I was a teenager (except civil partnerships).
And now, marriage in 2013.
There has been a lot of very publicly aired homophobia in the news as a result of the equal marriage debates. The same old arguments that were trotted out when adoption was made accessible were there. It’s the same thing about how marriage is between a man and a woman, how we can’t re-define marriage to meet social mores, how it was Adam and Steve – no wait – Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden not Adam and Steve as one MP now famously confused it. There was a lot of talk about how marriage is for procreation – ignoring the fact that people who can’t have or don’t want kids get married and how lesbian and gay couples can have kids too. I feel particularly infuriated when the children argument comes up as no-one bothers to ask me how I feel about being an adult who was raised from childhood in a gay family. Everyone appears to have an opinion on me but no-one wants to hear an actual, informed opinion it seems.
There was not one single argument against equal marriage (as opposed to marriage full stop) that was not based on a homophobic belief. The MPs who prefaced each homophobic argument with an explanation of how they weren’t homophobic were lying. If they believe that some people are not entitled to equality because of who they fall in love with, then they are homophobic. So long as marriage is what we have, then everyone who wants to, who is in a legal (i.e not underage etc.) consensual relationship, should be entitled to marry if that is what they choose to do.
Because otherwise what do we have? A tired and tiered system that privileges one type of relationship over another simply because it includes a man and a woman. It doesn’t matter how loving, how caring, how committed, how fun, how flyaway the relationship. The law as it stood stated that every straight relationship was worthy of more rights than every gay relationship. And that is not ok. This week told us that it is not ok.
One of the homophobic views aired is that equal marriage is about re-defining marriage. But marriage is always being re-defined. In the past, marriage was not about love. It was about treating women as a piece of property to be exchanged between men. Men who had the power. It was also about creating sons – a marital requirement that in one way or another led to the deaths of many, many women. In 18th century England, girls as young as 12 were married off to older men in property deals that took no care or consideration to the rights of girls or women. So you could say in 1882, when the Married Women’s Property Act came into place, we re-defined marriage then!
Somewhere along the way in the UK, somewhere between marriage as a property exchange and marriage as we see it now, we decided that marriage was about love. We re-defined marriage at that point. We decided that marriage was about publicly expressing your love for another person. Whether you choose to do that is not really the point – I’m not married for example. The point is that as a woman in a straight relationship, I had a choice to make that public statement. For too long, that has been a choice denied to too many people – including my own family. Now we all have that choice. We can all choose to embrace or reject the idea of marriage.
To me, so long as we re-defined marriage to be about love (not property, not children), then it was wrong to exclude people who are in love from being part of it. It was wrong.
Over the last few days I have reflected a lot on the homophobia that I witnessed as a child and that I experienced throughout my life. I am proud of what we achieved as a society on Tuesday. I am proud that the children in my gay friends’ relationship don’t have to go to school where they are invisible. I am proud that they will grow up learning that their families are equal to all other families.
This week, the dream I dreamed at eight years old came a little bit truer. We are getting ever closer to the day when two women can live in the same house and sleep in the same bed, and people won’t mind.
Sian Norris is a writer and feminist activist who blogs at sianandcrookedrib.blogspot.com. Her first novel, Greta and Boris: a daring rescue was published in April 2013 by Our Street books. She is a founding member of the Bristol Feminist Network and the founder of the Bristol Women’s Literature Festival. Her writing has been published at the Guardian, The F Word, Fresh Outlook, Liberal Conspiracy and Rockfeedback.