When Trenton Oldfield’s head bobbed up on our TV screens on Saturday, the boat race suddenly got interesting. Within minutes he had been compared to Emily Wilding Davison, the Suffragette who gave her life for her cause by running in front of the King’s Horse in 1913. Twitter was ablaze with people asking what he was protesting about. ‘He better have a good cause’ one tweet read. It was a striking, shocking act of protest, which disrupted the calm rhythm of years of established tradition.
It turns out Oldfield’s motivation was muddled and imprecise. He made no clear call to action – and his premise was deeply flawed. But the act itself has made people think.
It made me think about the fights throughout our history that have forced people to direct action. I was angry that Oldfield was compared to Wilding Davison. I was even angrier when I realised he had cited her as an inspiration.
It made me think about the injustice of women being denied the right to vote, and made me question what injustice today could warrant the honour of comparison.
There is a lot to be angry about at the moment. Andy Burnham got himself in a bit of twitter hot water by joking that he had been the swimmer – and that he was trying to get support for his campaign to save the NHS. But it could have been the NHS that Oldfield cared so passionately about. It could have been a whole host of issues.
But for me, there was one comparison that came to the front of my mind. Then, women were denied the vote simply because they were women. Today, I’m denied the chance to get married simply because I’m gay.
There has been another phenomenon on twitter over the Easter weekend as well. Politicos leaving their safe lefty bubbles and venturing home. Home to where the real conversations happen. Tweet after tweet on my timeline lamented a homophobic comment from a relative, or a sexist jibe. The tweet I didn’t send was a discussion with a friend who just didn’t get why equal marriage would matter to me.
I told him why. I said it matters to me because one day I hope to enter in to a lifelong union, as a foundation for building a home and family. Just like he does. I told him that I’m no less of a citizen than he. I told him that I can’t have what he can have simply because prejudice is enshrined in our laws. I said that as long as gay people do not have the same rights as heterosexual people, that there is something very wrong. I said that there is nothing wrong, or weird, or funny about being gay. I said that equal marriage has nothing to do with political correctness. That it is about my human rights.
A month or so ago, a letter was read out in Catholic churches across the UK condemning homosexuality as a sin. Thousands of confused kids in congregations across the UK were forced to sit through that letter. Too many will stay in the closet because their world tells them that who they are is wrong. No society should force children to be afraid to live their lives as they are. But in our society 90% of teachers have witnessed homophobic bullying in schools. In our society LGBT young people are four times more likely than other young people to commit suicide.
At Easter tables around the country on Sunday, people will have discussed equal marriage. At too many of those tables, good people were on the wrong side of the debate. People whose ignorance or intolerance is fed to them by the example set by their society. People whose minds it is our job to change.
There is a very real example of the scale of the challenge online at the moment. There are two big petitions about equal marriage. One, from the campaign for equal marriage, has 41,515 signatures. The other, from the campaign for marriage, who oppose equal marriage, has 408,548. We have a fight on our hands if we are to win the ground war.
I’m not suggesting that Stonewall’s Ben Summerskill should learn to swim. I’m not even advocating direct action as a tool to win equal marriage. I think our political system today, as opposed to a century ago, is much more geared up to listen – I think our opportunity lies within the framework of our democratic structures.
But I am calling for a new kind of action. David Cameron has provided an opportunity, one which we shouldn’t shirk just for political games. He has provided an opportunity from which it will be all to easy for him to step back. I think it is our job to make it impossible for him to back away.
As well as the vital role Labour parliamentarians will play, we can fight the ground war. I think that we can win the argument – in our families, in our workplaces, in our communities. Because Labour people have a proud history of fighting prejudice that has been enshrined in law. Don’t ignore this issue because it doesn’t affect you directly. Don’t avoid it because it creates an awkward debate. Grasp it with both hands, and play your part – and let’s take another step towards an equal society.