Thursday, 26 July 2012

Enough with the semantics already, aka Well Done Scotland

I lost my virginity illegally.

Actually, that’s not quite true. By the time I had my first proper sexual encounter with another man I had already had two long-term, sexual relationships with girlfriends. Proper ones, pregnancy scares and all. I first put my [redacted] into a lady’s [redacted] at the red-blooded age of sixteen, and jolly nice it was too. So nice, I spent the next couple of years repeating the experience.

But nonetheless, I had always been pretty sure that I was much more interested in the male downstairs than the female equivalent. So my first experience with a man- which involved nothing more graphic than getting a grab of another fella’s [redacted] and jiggling it around for a bit- was the moment when I truly felt I’d crossed the irrevocable border into adulthood. It was at that moment that I felt I was doing what I needed, wanted, was meant to do, rather than what I thought I ought to and hoped I could.

I was 18, and he was 23. We were couple of kids, I realise now. But the thing is, in 1991 it was against the law. My cackhanded handjob was something for which the unlucky recipient could have been prosecuted, and labelled the worst kind of criminal.

At the time, it didn’t bother me over much. I came from a loving, liberal family. I was at a university where homosexuality wasn’t so much accepted as positively encouraged, as all of our nation’s most famous spies could attest. I knew that I could fool around with as many men as I wanted and nobody would cart me off to chokey. I had a vague anger that 18-year-old women all over the UK were doing exactly the same thing without the danger that their partners would be labelled paedos, and I vaguely wanted it to change, but I had a vague idea that you Can’t Fight City Hall, and that Things Would Change Eventually.

I was the ‘innocent party’ in other criminal sexual encounters by the time my second year of studies was over. I hope you won’t be too shocked to hear this, but I actually slept with a COUPLE MORE men who were OVER TWENTY ONE when I was NINETEEN or TWENTY.

It astonishes me, and angers me, now that I’m 39, that those men were risking prison. But it didn’t particularly anger me at the time. That was just the way things were. When I was 21, the law changed. The age of gay consent was lowered to 18, which handily decriminalised-in-retrospect anything I’d done with those predatory 21 year olds. It was at that point that I started to get a better handle on this whole equality thing. 18 wasn’t enough. I had no desire to sleep with a sixteen year old, and nor did any of my straight friends. But the fact that they were hypothetically allowed to do so, and I hypothetically wasn’t, began to stick in my craw a little.

And yet, and yet. There were always greater injustices, things that it was more pressing to be crosser about. I am a first-world, educated, middle-class white male. The entire structure of  the world was still, unfairly, skewed in my favour, so it felt selfish to be bothered by that little, niggling inequality. I sat back, secure in the knowledge that my sensible, liberal nation would eventually equalise the age of consent. In the meantime, it would be greedy and singleissueish to shout too loudly about how I wasn’t properly equal. And anyway, in 2000 the age of consent was equalised in the UK, so it was all fine.

Except that it wasn’t. By 2000, I was 27. My friends were starting to marry each other. I became increasingly aware that I didn’t have that option, and wondered why that was OK. Even at that point, the language of equality didn’t enter my brain. ‘Marriage is for straight people’ I thought. ‘I don’t want to interfere with that. But it would be nice to have legal partnership rights’. Can you believe that? Here I was, an out and proud gay man, who was AGAINST what I would have called 'gay' marriage, or, if not against it, didn’t think it was important enough to make a fuss about. Give us the same legal rights, I thought, and the rest is just words.

When civil partnerships were brought into the UK, in 2004- I was thirty-one years old at this point- I thought. ‘Phew. No more fighting needed. We’re equal now. The people who are arguing about marriage are being unnecessarily silly about a word. Equal rights are about the law, not about semantics’.

Today, a part of my country- not, unfortunately, the part of my country that I live in- has accepted that there’s no reason why we need a different form of words for two gay people who want to profess their commitment to each other. And I’m ashamed that I ever thought it was a fight not worth fighting. Because, over the last few years, I’ve heard all the arguments against equal marriage, and realised that they’re all pathetic.

Nobody’s straight marriage is made any less committed, or any less wonderful, or any less of a miracle, or any less anything, by equal marriage. Marriage doesn’t belong to any religion, because civil marriage has existed in most nations on earth for decades, across faiths. Two atheists can marry, without marriage being devalued (and I know this: I've sung a Catholic hymn in a C of E church at the wedding of two non-believers).  Come to that, various major faiths have, in their time, married grown men to prepubescent girls, which I cite not as an attack on religion but as a rebuttal of the ‘tradition’ argument. In fact- and I use the word ‘fact’ advisedly- marriage, throughout history, has been the word we use to describe two people who make a public, binding commitment to each other. That’s why it’s not a pointless, ‘semantic’ argument. Religion, and tradition, don’t own the word marriage- people do. Every age decides what the word means, in law, in practice, and in love.

So, yeah, I am passionately, fervently in favour of equal marriage. There are other, more pressing injustices to get angry about: right, let's do that, but let's not allow whatabouttery to take our eye off this particular ball. I am the man who wasn’t that fussed that my first proper sexual experience was illegal. I am the man who fell in love with a 21 year old when I was 20, and wasn’t angry that he was risking prison. I am the man who thought that civil partnerships were enough. But now, here, in our 2012 world, I am also the man who is baffled that some people can marry and I can't.

I don’t want to use the emotive language of ‘us and them’, especially since more of my straight friends are passionate about this issue than my gay friends. But it’s time, now. It’s time that ‘we’ have what ‘they’ have. And if you find those inverted commas divisive, you’ve just made my point for me.

6 comments:

Clarevet said...

Great post, Jon. I couldn't agree more, and am sad and sorry that not everyone can marry the person they love, regardless of sexuality and gender. It is particularly galling when I live in a country where this is a highly political and divisive issue, and yet where the likes of Kim Kardashian and her joke of a marriage are held up as something to aspire to. If we are going to be divisive about this, I hope I can be counted on your side, despite being one of the privileged based on the random fact of my sexuality.

jondrytay said...

Thanks, Clare x

Pete Sloane said...

Likewise, I wholeheartedly agree with everything you've so eloquently put - well done that man.

Sarah said...

Absolutely right there.

Will said...

Actually, Kim K's marriage was a long-term "old marrieds" kind of thing compared to Britney Spears 55 hour farce. John, I love your passion on the subject. Here, we're keeping our fingers crossed for the "right" outcome to the coming election because we know that if Romney is elected, the Republicans will run riot and rush to dismantle four decades of struggle and achievement.

David said...

So well expressed, Jon: thank you. As one who didn't at first see why we had to go from civil partnerships to marriage, you've given me fresh food for thought.