Up against the Stonewall on equal marriage

Latecomer to campaign, Ben Summerskill smears Lib Dems 

By Peter Tatchell

Huffington Post – London, UK – 18 March 2014


Former Stonewall chief Ben Summerskill has made astonishing allegations against the Liberal Democrats, claiming they never sincerely supported same-sex marriage. He suggested they acted with “cynical and opportunistic” motives.

This is outrageous. I don’t support the Lib Dems, but they backed equal marriage at a time when Summerskill and the gay lobby group, Stonewall, refused to do so. The Lib Dems deserve credit for their early embrace of marriage for all. Ben’s petty, sectarian smears are unbecoming – and unjustified.

As evidence of his claim, Summerskill alleged that former MP, Dr Evan Harris, responded to the 2010 Lib Dem conference vote to adopt gay marriage by saying: “This is great because we put clear blue water between us and the Tories.”

Summerskill went on to insinuate that Evans and the Lib Dems only supported marriage equality as a means to gain political advantage over the Conservatives.

Speaking to Pink News, Dr Harris denies saying what Summerskill alleged: “It is very poor of Ben to invent a quote and claim it is all that was said. Ben was always annoyed by my criticism of Labour 1997-2010 for its slowness on all the issues (including) age of consent, armed forces, civil partnerships, and sexual offences….As you know, Clegg backed gay marriage in Feb 2010 and the Scottish Lib Dem Conference in March 2010 – long before the coalition,” he said.

On the eve of the Lib Dem’s 2010 autumn conference vote for marriage equality, Summerskill spoke at the party’s lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) fringe meeting. Attendees were expecting rousing support from Stonewall for the equal marriage motion. Instead, to gasps of disbelief, they were lectured about the cost and pitfalls of same-sex marriage.

Why? Ben Summerskill is a long-time Labour supporter and ex-Labour councillor. There is speculation that he is bidding for a safe Labour seat. He was reportedly one of the guests on Ed Miliband’s table at a fundraiser for the Labour Party last Wednesday. Perhaps his outburst was party point-scoring? Surely not?

Summerskill and Stonewall have done much important, valuable work. I salute their efforts on many fronts. I want to work them in the future. However, since Summerskill decided to make baseless allegations against key supporters of marriage equality, it needs to be said that Stonewall got it badly wrong on this issue. They refused to support marriage equality for four years – from 2006, when many other LGBT groups were urging an end to the ban on same-sex marriage.

As late as October 2010, Stonewall was claiming there was little support for marriage within the LGBT community (untrue; it was 90+%); adding that many gay people opposed it (in reality only a tiny minority; less than 10%). They also insisted that civil partnerships were sufficient (most LGBT people disagreed, as did many heterosexual allies).

Even worse, while opinion polls from 2009 onwards showed that two-thirds of the general public agreed that same-sex couples should be able to marry in civil ceremonies, Stonewall did not agree with marriage for LGBTs.

Although many members of the LGBT human rights group OutRage! shared the feminist critique of marriage, the activist group had been lobbying for marriage equality since 1992, on the grounds that the ban was a form of homophobic discrimination. In 2010, it joined forces with other organisations to form the Equal Love campaign, which sought to end the twin legal bans on same-sex civil marriages and opposite-sex civil partnerships.

Stonewall repeatedly briefed against OutRage! and Equal Love; making bogus claims about the cost of equal marriage. Has anyone ever heard another LGBT organisation reduce equality to a financial calculation? Equal rights is a human rights principle – not something that can be embraced or rejected, depending on the cost.

Stonewall’s unwillingness to support the equal marriage campaign was quoted by homophobes to justify their opposition to same-sex marriage. The anti-gays gloated: “Even Stonewall doesn’t support gays getting married.”

This was hugely damaging to the push for marriage equality.

I remember a meeting of LGBT organisations at the House of Commons in the summer of 2010, hosted by Equalities Minister, Lynne Featherstone MP. Every LGBT representative supported same-sex marriage – except Ben Summerskill of Stonewall. He refused to endorse equality and advanced arguments against equal marriage. The rest of us were shocked and appalled. In addition, he mounted what I interpreted as a veiled personal attack on Featherstone over her willingness to consider equal marriage legislation.

Stonewall only switched to support same-sex marriage in late October 2010, after a coalition of other organisations had done the groundwork and after it faced a huge LGBT backlash – including harsh criticism from two of its founders, Ian McKellen and Michael Cashman.

But even this switch was not straightforward. Instead of coming out in favour of equality, Stonewall opted to consult its members on whether it should support equal marriage. How bizarre. An organisation set up to fight for LGBT equality was unwilling to support equal marriage rights until it consulted its members. On no other issue has Stonewall insisted on consulting its membership before backing equality.

After being a latecomer to the campaign, Stonewall now brags that it won same-sex marriage; never acknowledging the contribution of OutRage!, Equal Love, Out4Marriage, the Coalition for Equal Marriage, Pink News – and many others.

Having long urged straight people to support marriage for gay couples, Stonewall is still refusing to support the right of straight couples to have a civil partnership. This comes across as one-sided and selfish. What happened to Stonewall’s professed mantra of equality?