David Cameron’s support for gay marriage has provoked the opposition of a number of Tory MPs, with opponents lambasting the proposals as “metropolitan”, “out of touch” or “unconservative”.
It’s pretty clear that the first two monikers aren’t true – polls show that gay marriage is supported by around two thirds of people, and those same polls show that the biggest level of support is in blue collar areas like the North East, Yorkshire and the West Midlands.
Suggestions that gay marriage is "unconservative" are deeply mistaken. Marriage is a profoundly conservative institution – it helps to bind families, communities and society together. Marriage encourages commitment and fidelity. People who are married are likely to be healthier and are less likely to engage in high-risk behaviour. If you believe that marriage is a powerful and socially beneficial institution, as conservatives rightly do, and if you believe that homosexuality is natural, then it is only logical to believe that those benefits should be extended to gay people.
If conservatives believe in the unique institution of marriage then they should agree that it is absolutely not good enough for gay people to have to accept a ‘half way house’ institution like civil partnerships. This is especially true because many of the benefits of marriage could be of particular benefit to the gay community. Equal marriage could play an important role in tackling the mental health problems and issues with high risk behaviour that continue to affect the gay community. Traditional conservative thinking would suggest that allowing gay people to marry would help to address both of these issues.
A recent study showed that 3% of gay men and 5% of bisexual men had attempted suicide over the past year, compared to 0.4% of all men. The study also showed that 7% of gay and bisexual men had self harmed in the same period, compared to 3% of all men. Psychologist Alan Downs, has written about the “velvet rage”, suggesting that gay people are more likely to suffer from mental health problems because of a sense of alienation from wider society.
The gay community has also witnessed a recent rise in HIV/Aids levels. One in ten gay men in London is now HIV positive. In 2010, 3,000 gay and bisexual men were diagnosed with HIV – the highest figure to date and gay men accounted for 45% of the new HIV diagnoses in that year. There’s also evidence that gay people are more likely to be involved in high-risk activities, such as alcohol and drug abuse, promiscuity and unprotected sex, with a gay ‘scene’ described by Attitude editor, Matthew Todd as “incredibly sexualised”.
Conservatives believe that marriage acts as a “commitment device” and has a “pacifying effect”, encouraging commitment, long-term relationships and lower levels of risk-taking. The power of the social institution of marriage and the social incentives it provides could only be beneficial to gay people.
Equal marriage would also make clear that gay people are an absolutely accepted part of the mainstream of British society. By creating role models, developing social institutions and acting as a bridge between gay people and their parents, equal marriage could tackle the sense of alienation felt by many young gay people. The social support, societal acceptance and pacifying effect of marriage could play a major role in tackling mental health problems amongst gay people.
Evidence from abroad suggests that allowing gay people to marry has many benefits, but creates no real harm. No country that has allowed gay people to marry has reversed the decision later. Public support for gay marriage has gone up after equal marriage was passed. Divorce rates have actually gone down in many of these countries and no country that has legalised gay marriage has gone down a “slippery slope” towards polygamy.
Allowing gay people to marry would be firmly in the Tory tradition of social reform. Wilberforce, Disraeli and their political heirs could have blocked necessary social reforms. Instead, they embraced them, despite warnings from their right flank, and the country benefitted because of this.
The Tory Party has a pretty indifferent record when it comes to gay equality. Being responsible for a totemic reform, such as gay marriage, would do more than a million mea culpas to eradicate the memory of Section 28 and the like. The Government could follow in the tradition of Tory social reformers and push through this reform, which is backed by solid conservative principles. Or they could turn their back on the reform and see the Tory image retoxified and Tory modernisation undone.
Allowing gay people to marry isn’t about ‘redefining’ marriage. Instead it is about allowing gay and lesbian people into the institution of marriage – an institution that they deeply respect. As long as sufficient safeguards are in place to protect religious freedom against judicial activism, there is no reason for conservatives to oppose equal marriage.
Conservatives are right to make the case for marriage. They should also be making the case for allowing two men or two women who love each other to be able to marry each other and make a lifelong commitment to each other. Gay marriage would be a thoroughly conservative reform. It would be good for gay people, good for the institution of marriage and good for society.