It's Ten Years Since MPs Voted For Gay Marriage, But Is There A Backlash?

Ten years ago, MPs voted to allow gay people to marry. 

David Cameron’s decision to push the legislation in an attempt to detoxify the Tory brand was met with horror by many on the Conservative benches. 

They feared the “merciless prism of equality”. Critics claimed it would lead to fewer hetrosexual marriages, open the door to incest, cause fathers to marry their sons to avoid tax and even set back the acceptance of same-sex relationships.

Others said it would allow an heir to the throne to be born to a lesbian queen who had been artificially inseminated.

If anything, Section 28 should be re-introduced, said one MP, while another concluded “most parents would prefer their children not to be gay” but argued he couldn’t possibly be a bigot because he once punched a gay man in the face.

When it came to it, 136 Tory MPs voted against the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill and 127 voted in favour. But with the support of Labour and then-in-government Lib Dems, it passed.

Cameron - who witnessed party members tearing up their membership cards infront of him - would later say it was one of his “proudest” moments as prime minister. 

Maria Miller, the then culture secretary charged with piloting the Bill through the Commons, told HuffPost UK the legislation was “totemic” and an “incredibly moving thing to be part of”.

“You can’t underestimate the importance of the act,” she said. “It’s one of the only times I’ve been stopped in the street by strangers basically thanking parliament.

“It didn’t just impact people’s ability to get married, but also started to help people modernise their attitudes towards same-sex relationships.”

This includes in the Commons, with several MPs who voted against the law later saying they regretted that vote. At the time, a YouGov poll showed 54% of people were in favour of the change with 37% opposed. Fast-forward to January 2023, 77% now support the law with only 15% opposed.

But the current mood is far from celebratory. 

Last year, hate crimes in England and Wales jumped by the biggest amount since 2017. Sexual orientation hate crimes increased by 41% to 26,152 and transgender identity hate crimes by 56% to 4,355.

Both of these increases were the largest percentage annual rises since March 2012 - one year before the same-sex marriage vote.

A petition - signed by over 200,000 people - to ban “LGBT content” from schools was recently put to parliament. While swiftly rejected by the government, it was widely and nervously shared in LGBTQ+ WhatsApp groups.

Under Home Office plans, LGBT+ people seeking asylum in Britain could be deported to Rwanda, where they face being persecuted for their sexuality. The government plans to send them anyway. 

Trans people are, in the words of Labour MP Angela Eagle, currently at the centre of “full-blown hysteria” about their existence. 

Some of it,” the second ever out lesbian MP and first out government minister told parliament last week, “has been provoked deliberately” by “some members of the government and their enablers in the press”.

Ben Howlett, who served as a Tory MP between 2015 and 2017, is downbeat. “I would have liked this special anniversary to be a celebration,” he said. The 36-year-old is “deeply disappointed that the Conservative Party is once again tearing itself apart over equality” specifically “it’’s relationship with the trans community”. 

“Following the introduction of equal marriage, the hope was that the fight for LGBT+ equality had been won. However, the fact that all parties are tearing themselves apart over policy impacting the trans community,” he said.

“On this 10th anniversary, let’s remind ourselves that the fight was not won, we have all got to work a lot harder to progress and not simply go backwards.”

Last week the Tory LGBT+ group held a reception in parliament, with Theresa May as the special guest. In 2017 the then-PM proposed changing the Gender Recognition Act (GRA) to allow trans people to legally change their gender without a medical diagnosis. 

The changes in No.10 have since seen those plans dropped, and an attempt to change the law in Scotland has been blocked by Westminster - sparking a huge constitutional row.

Elliot Colburn, the Tory MP who co- chairs the APPG on global LGBT rights, has warned trans issues are now so ”toxic” in parliament and the media that it is “hard to believe” the UK government’s move was more to do with constitutional issues than trans people.  

During the summer Tory leadership campaign, Liz Truss and Kemi Badenoch did not respond to an invitation from the LGBT+ Conservatives to answer some pretty softball questions about queer issues. While Truss was briefly prime minister, Badenoch is currently the equalities minister. 

Campaign groups are worried. Sasha Misra of Stonewall warned that despite “great progress” since equal marriage was introduced, the UK has slipped down the global ranking of nations on LGBT+ equality.

“We have seen this reflected in the length of time it has taken to bring forward a ban on conversion practices, despite it first being promised by the government in 2018. Now is the time for inclusive values that bring people together to face these challenges,” she said. 

“Stonewall has worked constructively with successive UK Governments over the last three decades to push forward progress for LGBT+ people, sometimes despite strong differences on policy issues. We will continue to do so to advocate for the rights and freedoms of our community.”

For the first time, this year the size of that community was counted. Some 1.5 million people England and Wales identified with an LGBT+ sexual orientation in the 2021 census – 3.2% of those aged 16 and over. And 262,000 people in England and Wales have a different gender identity from their sex registered at birth. This represents 0.5% of the population aged 16 and over.

Progress for this group is “not inevitable”, Angela Eagle reminded MPs in a debate to mark LGBTQ+ history month. “It is obvious that we are now in the midst of a well-organised global backlash against LGBT+ rights. It is well-funded, ferocious and potentially deadly for LGBT+ people.”