Should Ben Summerskill learn to swim?

10th April, 2012 12:30 pm

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.

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  • jaime taurosangastre candelas

    I’m a bit perplexed on this issue.  As I understand it, civil partnerships give the couple the same legal rights and responsibilities as married couples, so what is actually the issue? If I have misunderstood and there is some legal disparity, please forgive and educate me.

    I do see however a separation between church and state.  If Churches do not wish to preside over formal marriage ceremonies between same sex couples, they should be free to follow their principles.  In the same way, divorced people cannot remarry in Church in some denominations.

    Having a religious ceremony is not necessary to become legally coupled, whatever the name of the relationship. Perhaps it would be better if every union – same sex or opposite sex – was required to be formally registered with the state in some civil ceremony and called “legal partnership”, and then for those who choose the Church can conduct a ceremony of marriage.  That would take the state away from the argument, and place the argument between the couple and the Church if some denominations choose not to affirm a same sex relationship.

    I suspect the nearly 10:1 disparity in signatures to the 2 competing petitions should tell you how the people of the country feel.

    • GuyM

      I don’t think there is a difference legally Jaime.

      The simple fact is that for the LBGT “community” if I as a straight person can be “married” then they should be able to as well.

      I can see their point in some respects but also see the Church’s view that marriage has been a traditionally religious institution and as such ought to not seen as simply an issue of secular equality.

      My compromise would be let them get “married” if it’s that important but allow the Church to block religious gay marriage on Church property if that’s what they want. Although I’d prefer it if the LBGT community were sufficiently grown up to not worry about the word “marriage” and leave things they are.

      • AlanGiles

        This is not my area of expertise, but as I understand it, if the family of a gay person has objections of whatever sort to their son/brother whatever being gay, if the person becomes very ill, it is the (perhaps estranged) family of the individual who is classed as next of kin, and in the event of a death or a serious procedure being needed, in hopsital or where-ever it would be the consent of the family required and not the partner, and the partner can be excluded from any decision-making. I suppose the idea of gay marriage is that the two individuals would have exactly the same legal rights as any other couple who are legally married. I don’t know if it is the case now, but until just a few years ago a “common law” wife or husband took second place to the original spouse, even if they had been seperated for many years.

        • Eleanor

          Civil Partnership gives the same rights as marriage in these situations.

      • Brumanuensis

        I think that sums up the views of most people on this site, Guy, including my own. Civil marriage equality absolutely, with an ‘opt-in’ option for religious organisations that want to allow gay religious marriage.

        On the ‘marriage’ question, what most gay people want is the recognition of their equal status as citizens. It’s quite seductive – so to speak – to say that civil partnerships are essentially the same, so why bother, but I think this misses the point as to why ‘gay marriage’ is valued. Marriage is an important cultural institution and equalising access for gay and straight people symbolises their civic equality. Coming up with a ‘separate-but-equal’ compromise just implicitly reinforces the view that gay people are a ‘different’ from the rest of us.

        • Alexwilliamz

          This then must be the nub of the issue, is marriage a heterosexual institution or not? To answer that question requires some kind of debate about what we think marriage is. Are we saying that institutions have to be universal? Or is the issue as to whether one institution creates some kind of advantage over those denied access to it. How about the state no onger recognises marriage at all and only civil partnerships, would that make any difference? The original posts, desire to link this to the suffragettes is a little OTT either way.

          • Brumanuensis

            I’ve read on ‘privatising’ marriage, i.e. withdrawing an official state form, and although it’s an ingenious solution, I think it side-steps the main issue and deprives us of an opportunity to make a major civic gesture, symbolising full equality for gay people after a long period of inequality. I think ECHR jurisprudence – albeit not on marriage – has tended to regard arrangements that implicitly tolerate inequalities, or are liable to generate them, as contrary to equal protection legislation.

            You are quite right to point out that the real debate is on the nature of marriage. For me, marriage isn’t really a contract, more a covenant – although without the religious element for me – which symbolises love, amity and union between two people who love one another. Obviously this can raise additional questions, but that’s my broad viewpoint. I don’t agree with liberals who  argue in favour of taking ‘morality’ out of public affairs. Gay marriage is a profoundly moral cause and I would expect anyone who believes in equality to campaign for it. So yes, I think it is a unversal institution – the more the merrier – and not a heterosexual one, at least not any more.

            I believe, on a side note, that the Romans carried out gay weddings. Albeit their views on homosexuality were rather complex.

            On who should be allowed to be married, I paraphrase a bit of advice I was once given on sex – ‘keep it outside the family, inside the species’.

          • Alexwilliamz

            Thankyou Brum, excellent explanation and you have converted me to your point of view.

          • Brumanuensis

            A convert!

          • Brumanuensis

            (Dances excited jig; pats self on back)

    • Simon Whitten

      The Church doesn’t have a monopoly on marriage. There are no plans to force churchs that don’t want to to conduct same-sex marriages, on the contrary under current plans those churches/religious institutions that wish to carry out religious same-sex marriage (the non-conformists, liberal protestants and some reformed jews) will remain banned from doing so.

      The fight is over Civil Marriage, where no religious organisation is involved.

      • jaime taurosangastre candelas

        I think I am even more confused now.  If one denomination of the Church or perhaps Jews or Buddhists or any other religion is happy to allow same sex  marriages, what is it the concern of other denominations?  I am a practicing Christian affirmed to the CofE, but I don’t give three coughs for what the Pope likes or does not like, and he has no hold over me.  I do not bend my neck to him, even if we both do to the same God.

        Any new law should be a simple one line law: “The law recognises marriages  conducted by a religious institution between people who are legally entitled under the civil law to enter into a civil partnership or marriage”.  There may need to be some caveats around what is a proper religious institution, but those will already be defined.

      • Alexwilliamz

        What is the difference is this just down to the word being used, in which case let’s just get on with it.

    • Alexwilliamz

      I’m not really sure why same sex couples would want to be ‘married’ in the traditional sense. Surely part of being gay is that it is different to heterosexuality, the issue for me has always been that we should celebrate difference and condemn discrimination. I can’t see any material or political or whatever disadvantage of not being married.

      One thing it does make me question is whether the state should give any kind of priority or rights to two people who for want of any other distinction are in a committed sexual relationship. Just about every reason you could use (other than when the couple become a family) could be applied to any two (or even more) cohabitees. Why should having sex make this any more or less significant? It’s not as if the partnerships/marriages are for life these days anyway.

    • Nope. Polling suggests its 60-40 the other way, but the opponents of marriage equality have used churches to gain signatures. 

  • GuyM

    1 Not bothered about whether you call it marriage or not, so if that’s what you want then ok

    2 No religion should be forced to accept a gay marriage ceremony in their churches etc. now or at any time in the future if they don’t wish to.

    3 Trenton Oldfield is a self serving idiot who had no right, whatever his cause to do what he did. Hopefully he’ll be locked up for a while.

    4 Stonewall are one of the most repulsive organisations on the face of the planet.

    • AlanGiles

      “Stonewall are one of the most repulsive organisations on the face of the planet.”

      Could you explain why Guy?. As far as I understand it they exist to promote equalitiy regardless of sexuality. What have they done that has upset you so much?. Genuiney interested to know

      • GuyM


        Because they accepted the value of forced “outings”.

        On other words they accepted damage to individuals, often quite destructive damage, in order to pursue what they saw as ” the greater good”.

        I find any organisation able to accept forced sacrifice of non willing victims in order to pursue their own goals to be repulsive.

        Stonewall are such an organisation.

        •  I think you’re thinking of Outrage, the strength of your (uninformed) view suggests other motivations.

          • AlanGiles

            I have to say I only knew of them through their work in equal rights, and also educational publications and the like. I was just accepting Guy’s word for it. Yes, I know that isn’t a very sensible thing to do.

          • According to a report in the Independent “Stonewall distrusts outing as immoral in the short term and imprudent in the long term.”


          • This was always their position, Guy.

          • GuyM

            Hardly, Outrage and Stonewall had similar views on outings, Outrage certainly more militant but Stonewall were happy to passively accept the results and as far as I know never criticised Outrage for their tactics (feel free to show me I’m wrong).

            The “motivations” dig seems to be a way of calling me homophobic, if that’s the case come out and say it and not hide behind insinuations.

            A number of my very close friends are gay and that’s been the case for years. Homophobia, sexism, racism are all things I won’t accept under any circumstances at any time. I don’t know how I can make that any clearer.

            Any member of my staff indulging in any of those 3 hate activities would find me immediately pursing disciplinary action against them. So now you understand either “come out of the closet” (yes I used that phrase quite deliberately) in terms of what you are hinting at accusing me off or be quiet.

          • Brumanuensis

            That’s unfair, Joshua. Guy hasn’t said anything on this thread to imply what I believe you’re implying.

        • AlanGiles

          I only know of them through some posters on London Buses,  and also, I think they do a lot of work around HIV and AIDS, I didn’t know of these activities, though they don’t seem very succesful because I don’t know of anybody  in public life (presumably?) who has been one of their victims.

          Still, if this is a fact then you have a fair point.

          • GuyM

            I’d be very supportive of their actions around the work they do with HIV as well as standing against hate crime.

            However the more militant in your face and “equality” at any cost, which invariably leads to situations where some are more equal than others is not something I’d ever accept.

            If someone wants to show me a Stonewall statement clearly and unequivocally standing against outings and the like then I’ll accept it and change my opinion to the extent warranted.

          • Brumanuensis


            I mean, in the case of individuals like those in the film ‘Outrage’, can we really say it was unfair to out them – assuming it was true?


          • Brumanuensis

            I would just like to add that I don’t support outing as a general rule, only with certain exceptions.

          • I think they don’t do very much (if anything) on HIV/AIDS.

            They don’t out people but Ben Summerskill did write a rather nasty CiF piece about David Laws in which he had very little sympathy for the reasons why Laws (or anyone else for that matter) might not want to be out.

          • GuyM

            Much as I suspected.

          • AlanGiles

            Andy, Sorry the HIV/AIDS organisation is the Terrance Higgins Trust.

            In the case of David Laws, I don’t know the article in question but I do know Laws was another expenses fiddler, who, despite being a millionaire, decided to use his position in connection with his second home expenses.

            He said he didn’t want people to know about his sexuality. I have no sympathy with any of the expenses scorungers, but, had I been Mr Laws, had I been a millionaire and wanted to keep my private life private, I would have forgone the extra money gained for expenses in order to keep my privacy.

            It seems an easy choice – money you don’t need, or privacy, which you do.

        • Brumanuensis

          It was my understanding that Stonewall only did that if the individual in question was being blatantly hypocritical. In which case, fair game in my opinion.

          • That was the position of Outrage! Stonewall were opposed to outing entirely

        • Stu

          Stonewall are not the organisation that have carried out forced outings, GuyM

          It would appear your knowledge of LGBT organisations is virtually zero.  I suspect you are referring to Outrage!.  I also think you dangerously speculate and your approach to human rights and equality is disappointing.

        • Not at all, Guy. You are confusing them with Outrage!

          Stonewall always opposed outing and never outed anyone

      •  Stonewall are notoriously poor at representing the bisexual people they take money from – has some details.

      •  Stonewall are notoriously poor at representing the bisexual people they take money from – has some details.

        • AlanGiles

          Good morning Dave. As I said earlier this isn’t my area of expertise (not that I have much anyway these days now my professional life is over!), I just remember I have seen some of their literature in connection with a bit of volunatry work I have done – you get to know a litttle – a very little – about quite a lot of organisations, having read what you and another poster have said, and reading around a bit, it certainly seems as if it is an organisation that tends to court the middle class professional, rather than (to use that outdated term) “the working class” , or the manual workewr, which is a shame, because they probably need more support than those who are a bit further up the ladder – a bit like New Labour in fact.

  •  I know the line about Ben Summerskill is more about a snappy headline than to make a serious point, but it still rests on the problematic and widespread assumption that the movement for LGB equality can be metonymically represented by Stonewall (and also on the assumption that Stonewall can be metonymically represented by Summerskill, though that’s more forgivable!).

    But it’s a mistake to think of Stonewall that way. It’s simply bizarre to imagine Summerskill doing anything to antagonise the companies and organisations with which Stonewall has such a cosy relationship. In fact, less than 2 years ago Summerskill didn’t even support marriage equality and even suggested it would cost too much to implement.

    It suits Stonewall’s agenda for them to be considered THE voice of the LGB community to whom all LGB campaigning can be outsourced, but that’s very unhealthy for all sorts of reasons: Stonewall’s poor record with regard to trans people and organisations, the limited range of areas on which they work (primarily focused on middle-class professionals), the fact that they won’t engage in non-mainstream political tactics and their aloof relation to the people they’re supposed to represent (the last two sound rather like the Labour Party, actually!).

    Anyway, *someone* should learn to swim, just not Ben Summerskill.

  • I think this article’s a little confused. It rightly stresses the need to normalise gayness in order to make children’s lives easier; in other words, we should teach children that difference is ok. Then with the other hand it suggests that actually, different institutions (CPs) aren’t ok, and actually we have to be the same as straight people and use their institutions. Sorry, I don’t buy it. The idea that gay marriage is radical is amusing – it’s the height of conservatism, because the implication is that ‘if only we acted more like the straights, they’d treat us better’. Nope. Let’s embrace difference and be proud to have our own institutions instead. 

  • 17andnbk

    As a newcomer to this site I have to say I am shocked by the lack of understanding and range of negative views from Labour supportes in response to this article.

    The issue here is one of how civil society treats minorities. Surely by now everyone can understand that homosexuality is a normal and natural feature of humanity. There is no such thing as “the gay community” (as akin say to a racial or religious group that to some extent keeps itself distinct) – there is only THE community, of which gay and lesbian people are, or should be,  equal members. They are our children, our parents, our sisters and our brothers, our colleagues, our friends, they are part of us. The label “civil partnership” was used in 2004 when official reegistratrion of relationships was finally allowed. That name was used as a compromise.

    There have always been marriages between two people of the same sex – we have all known examples I am sure. The only difference from anyone elses marriage was that the state refused to recognise them. Since CP’s were brought in they have been colloquially referred to as marriage. What is now proposed is that the state should recognise them for what they are.

    Two other significant faults with the CP regime are :
    – that no solemnization is allowed (ie no vows)
    – no religious reference is allowed
    One has to ask oneself what valid reasons there were for such prohibitions. Is it the work of the civil government to prevent a couple making vows to each other, or wishing to do so before their God, if they have one?

    The Tory proposals seek to maintain the prohibition on marriage in ANY religious premises or with ANY religious reference. Lesbian and gay people are just as entitled to be religious or not as anyone else (I think we can safely leave any question of judgement to God). I believe Lord Ali plans an amendement to correct this. Surely Labour people could be getting behind him on this one and thus showing a clear lead to the Tories. The Quakers, Unitarians and others wish to celebrate marriages between couples of the same sex – is it right for Parliament to stop them?

    Finally, marriage does not belong to any particular religious group, or to religious groups in general. It is the state that records marriages (with civil ceremonies or the option for the solemnization on religious premises if that is what the couple & their group wish). But there is no posssible reason for the state to abolish civil marriage ceremonies and to say that anyone who wishes to marry must do so in church (and subject to the church’s sanction)

    • James Asser

      The reason no religious reference is allowed as part of civil partnerships is that they were set up to take place as a civil ceremony. The same ban on religious references applies to civil marriage as well. For those wishing a relgious dimension this problem has now been partly overcome by the amendment introduced by Lord Alli in the Equality Act that allows for religious civil partnerships, for those churches and faiths that wish to carry them out.

      On the issue of vows, civil partnerships do allow vows. Unlike civil marriage there are no required vows to be said (the partnership comes into force with the signing of the register which is all that is legally required) but vows are not banned. Many people write their own and a full ceremony along the lines of a civil marriage can be arranged with the registrar, which is what most people opt for. There are also a sets of model vows offered via local register offices.

      The current Home Office consultation does not propose to scrap civil partnership but would extend civil marriage to same-sex couples. The consultation doesn’t, unfortunately, look at allowing an opt in for churches on same-sex marriage. Those looking for a religious element would still only have the option of a civil partnership by a church they had opted in, such as the Unitarians or the Quakers.


  • Monkeybot5000

    Is there anybody in a “civil  partnership” that doesn’t refer to it as a marriage?

    I mean, if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck….

  • This is something of a non-issue. I think that the use of marriage as a general term irrespective of sexuality makes sense. I also think churches should be able to choose who they marry in the way they currently choose to marry divorcees or not. That does mean that churches who want to marry gay couples should be allowed to do so.

    But there are a lot of other issues of equal importance in terms of the implementation of legislation….so I hope this change happens soon so we can ensure those important matters are given sufficient attention

  • Betcha24

    Tories and LibDems are all out campaigning to smear the Labour party… they’ve been inundating the social media, impersonating Labour voters, spreading lies about what the grassroots are doing, right here in this comments, to appear as if Labour voters are homophobes. Be careful.


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