c.2013 New York Times News Service
LONDON — The House of Lords stands as one of the great bastions of tradition here, a baroque link to a distant, noble-centric past of pomp and pageantry. Its members serve for life. Their average age is 69. Once a year, they unearth fur-lined robes from their family vaults (or from the vaults of upmarket robe-rental shops) and process regally into Parliament as if it were still, say, 1599.
So it was startling to hear some of the speeches in the chamber this week.
“Many years ago, I had the great fortune to meet someone,” declared Baroness Barker. “She and I have loved each other ever since.”
Another peer mentioned his lesbian daughter. A third, Lord Black of Brentwood, said, of his partner of nearly 25 years: “I love him very much, and nothing would give me greater pride than to marry him.”
And still another peer, 86-year-old Baron Jenkin of Roding, said he had been supportive of gay rights since he was a college student and his grandfather first explained to him what gay people were. Speaking on Monday in the two-day debate over a bill to legalize same-sex marriage, Lord Jenkin argued that the measure would not diminish the bonds of traditional marriage, as its opponents have maintained.
“One has to regard that argument as really quite misconceived,” said Lord Jenkin, who served in Margaret Thatcher’s Cabinet and has been married (to a woman) for 61 years. He presented it as a hypothetical: “A young man poses the question to his intended. ‘Will you marry me?’ And she replies, ‘Oh, no. This bill has made it all totally different. It’s for gays and lesbians — I can’t possibly marry you.’ That is pure fantasy.”
It was not the first time gay peers had spoken openly of their sexuality in the chamber, or the first time their colleagues had championed gay rights. But what was striking about the debate was how much, and how quickly, the tenor of things has changed here.
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Earlier Lords discussions on similar subjects have been cranky, contentious, graphic, even hostile at times. In 1999, the Lords rejected legislation to lower the age of consent for gay sex to 16, from 18, with many arguing — from personal boarding-school experience, it seemed — that the bill would make teenage boys vulnerable to the predatory advances of older gay men. (The government at the time invoked a rarely used power to override the Lords’ vote, and the measure became law anyway.)
The current gay marriage bill passed in February after an angry debate in the House of Commons, with many Conservatives defying the government line and voting against it. In the House of Lords, too, many peers said they were implacably opposed. But even its most impassioned critics, a passel of noble bishops among them, went out of their way, with a few rare exceptions, to declare their firm support for gay couples and civil partnerships.
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“There has been a very remarkable change,” said Lord Jenkin, who remembers the vitriolic, revulsion-filled House of Commons debates in the 1960s over decriminalizing gay sex.
“The massive intolerance and disgust which the concept of homosexuality still gave expression to then — nobody would get away with that today,” he said in an interview.
That meant that when the lord bishop of Leicester rose to speak against the bill on Monday he did so, he said, “as one whose respect for and appreciation of gay clergy is deep and who recognizes in them sacrificial lives and fruitful ministries.”
It meant that when Lord Dear criticized the bill as being “introduced on a whim and handled in such cavalier fashion,” he also said that he had “seen and applauded this country’s change of attitude towards homosexuality, from thinly veiled intolerance 50 years or so ago to a position of understanding and acceptance today.”
Lord Smith of Finsbury, who as a legislator in the House of Commons 30 years ago became the first openly gay member of Parliament, said in an interview that the Lords’ attitudes were beginning to move with public opinion, particularly among younger people.
At the end of the debate, the Lords voted on an amendment that would have killed the bill. The amendment was defeated, which means that the measure now moves to the committee stage, where it will be revised and sent back to the House of Commons. It is almost certain to become law.
But the seeming inevitability of that outcome did not stop the bill’s opponents from getting their arguments in. This being the House of Lords, some deployed reasoning that seemed old-fashioned, at the very least.
While noting that “homosexuals are often very delightful, artistic and loving people,” Baroness Knight of Collingtree observed that “a man can no more bear a child than a woman can produce sperm.”
Some peers warned that the bill would lead to all sorts of unintended consequences as different configurations of people representing different sexual traditions — polygamy, polyandry, polyamory, threesomes, love of relatives, among others — demanded to get married, too. The tricky situation of two elderly sisters living in a house together was mentioned frequently.
Other critics revealed themselves to be preoccupied with the possible physical aspects of the situation and how those might contradict the accepted view of traditional marriage.
“‘One flesh’ involves a physical and spiritual union: the joining together of the reproductive organs of a man and a woman,” said Lord Edmiston, alluding to the Bible.
“It is a physical impossibility in a same-sex relationship for the reproductive organs to be joined together,” he added, “and therefore whatever we seek to call it, it cannot be a marriage in the traditional sense.”
Many lords mentioned how long they themselves had been married — 30, 40, 60 years — as proof of their authority on the subject.
Lord Craig of Radley (58 years) raised the issue of who gets to have sex with whom.
“How soon might we see an individual claiming that his human rights are being denied because being married to a man does not allow him the same conjugal rights as if he were married to a woman?” he wondered.
“Therefore, he might argue, why should he not be allowed to be married both to another man and also — not alternatively — to a woman?”
It was a lot to think about.