Once in a while something happens that is absolutely and without qualification good, and will be the source of enduring goodness in the future. That happened this weekend with the legalisation of gay marriage in Britain.
Gay marriage is both a reflection and an engine of a profund, and profoundly welcome, shift in social attitudes, most of which has happened in my lifetime. I’ve been able to track this shift through my work, teaching always having been a gay-friendly profession. When I began teaching in the 80s, the generation of teachers above me, those who had grown up when homosexuality was still illegal, was stuffed full of closet cases. Some of the luckier ones got away with living with a ‘lodger’ or a ‘friend’. Others, less fortunate or less brave, fought their own nature. Sometimes it was through an obsessive need for control, screaming at children for wearing the wrong kind of socks or flying into a panic if all the pencils on their desk were not pointing in the same direction. Others punished themselves with depression, or drink, or overeating; many lashed out at colleagues with bitchy, barbed character assassinations, pursued obsessive petty vendettas or humiliated children with their cruel put downs. Some let their frustrated need to love leak out onto their students by burdening them with emotional or even physical demands. All of them were a daily rebuke to the notion that there is anything remotely heroic in denying one’s sexuality. Then, in the 90s, little by little, toes started to appear out of closets; on one memorable occasion, a monument of camp nastiness and evasion walked into the Staff Room and said, ‘I’ve just been showing that Romeo and Juliet film to my class, and I must say that Leo Di Caprio is quite a cutie.’ Well, it was a start. Now, in London at least (leading the country by example as ever ...), the whole thing is completely routine. There are a number of Staff Room couples at my school, and half of them are gay. The Head Teacher announces staff’s civil partnerships (and I hope will soon do the same for marriages) in Assembly in the same breath as their straight equivalents. To my students, homophobia is as unimaginable as witch-burning.
This is not yet the case everywhere, however. Here I’m tempted to reach for Edward Heath’s formula: ‘There are people who disagree with me. They are wrong.’ But instead, let’s take the critics on their own terms. Doesn’t it undermine the institution of marriage? I’m in a heterosexual marriage but, strangely, I don’t feel an urge to leave my wife because gay people can get married. If I think about at all, it reminds me of what a good thing marriage is if more people want to do it. It is against nature. Denying the sexuality you have been given is against nature, with predictably disastrous consequences (as my examples above indicate). It is against the Church’s teaching. Here I’ll come out, and proud, as a committed, practising Catholic. The Church is right about most things, and wrong about some things. It was wrong about slavery, it was wrong about anti-semitism, it was wrong to support Franco in Spain and Mussolini in Italy and it was wrong to turn a blind eye to the Holocaust. It knows now it was wrong about those things, and please God it will know one day it was wrong about homosexuality. Being gay is not like smoking or eating chocolate biscuits, something that can be given up with a bit of effort. If a person is gay it is because God made them gay, and not to express the love that they have been given is a sin against the Creator Himself; the Church should repent of that sin. The existence of the legal institution of marriage does not guarantee the Christian virtues of fidelity, or commitment, or love, but it does greatly assist and support these virtues, and the Church should rejoice in its extension.
So this week we can be proud to be British. All credit to David Cameron, who bravely expended a lot of political capital on this issue for not much return. When Nick Clegg said if he achieved nothing else, gay marriage would make going into coalition worthwhile, he wasn’t far wrong. Britain is a better place for gay marriage, and it’s not going back. Sometimes things get better.