I can hear myself sighing, because he’s talking again about how, despite every unbiased opinion poll coming out with over two thirds of people in favour of allowing same-sex couples to marry, his mail-bag was about half and half – and that more folk had written to congratulate him than castigate him after his ‘nay’ vote.
It’s interesting that he’s telling me this, because he says his decision to vote against the bill was driven by his conscience, his soul-searching, and yet he takes great pains to remind me, over and over again, that if I’m going to tell him that he’s flying in the face of public sentiment, his mail says otherwise. I don’t know who he thinks he’s placating – certainly it’s no comfort to me that half the politically motivated people who live in my part of town apparently think I shouldn’t have equal rights. And if he voted with his conscience, why does it matter what his constituents did or didn’t think?
The ‘pro’ camp were ‘hostile’, too, he says – ‘demanding’ that he vote in favour of the bill, harassing and insulting him. I didn’t observe that the ‘anti’ camp probably said things an LGBT person would consider hostile, even if he wouldn’t. As we were leaving I reminded him – not to defend people who sent abusive messages but to at least put their words in context – that a lot of those folk had probably spent their whole lives being discriminated against and he had, this week, become a symbol of that for them. He favoured me with a wry, understanding grin, and said that he knew all about being discriminated against: he was a Catholic. It’s probably fortunate that there wasn’t time for my partner to get out her tiny violin before I dragged her out and we made our way, hands clasped tightly, still shaking a little, home to our cats and our contented little liberal bubble where it’s becoming easier and easier every year to forget that people like Jim McGovern, Labour MP for Dundee West still exist.
So what did I gain?
After all, I wasn’t going to change his vote. “You should’ve come to see me last week,” he said – last week’s surgery he’d been visited by four folk urging him to vote against. Of course, last week all that mattered to me was that the vote was going to go through, as I was confident it would. Last week it didn’t matter that some MPs would vote against; it wasn’t personalised the way it was by my MP – my representative – voting the way he did.
See, we’ve visited McGovern before when my partner was having some issues with the UKBA. If he’d been uncomfortable dealing with a pair of lesbians, he hadn’t shown it; he’d been friendly and helpful. So I certainly didn’t visit him on Friday expecting hostility or abuse.
No, I was expecting very much what I got. He’d taken advice from his church, he said, who’d told him that they believed that allowing civil marriage between same-sex couples would inevitably pave the way to the Catholic church being forced to marry same-sex couples. His evidence? Well, look at civil partnerships – we never thought they would happen.
I was a little too nonplussed by this logically bereft angle to really put up much of a fight. I made the usual case – I pointed out that it was a matter of religious freedom that religious organisations should be allowed to marry same-sex couples if they wanted to, just as it would continue to be the right of the Catholic church to refuse*. I pointed out, repeatedly, how opposite-sex couples marry without ever going near a church. He waffled a bit about the Bible, our arguments staying pretty firmly parallel to one another without intersecting.
At the end of the day, I got to look him in the eye when I told him that whatever he thought his motivations were, I saw his choice as discriminatory, and I could no longer vote for him (not that I ever had). And that was important to me, though I’m sure I’ll lose a lot more sleep over it than he ever will.
I did learn some important things, though, things that do represent to me a call for action.
I learned that some folk on our side are sending their MPs communications that make them feel attacked. I understand why they do this – why they send ‘demands’, why they form their words forcefully. But Jim McGovern doesn’t hate me. Yes, he’s prejudiced, but he doesn’t see that, and he genuinely doesn’t believe that he bears me any ill will. When you communicate with someone like that in an aggressive way you make it easier for them to vote your rights away, not harder. There is no doubt in my mind that every single hostile communication McGovern received was a salve to his conscience – no matter how much he bleats that he wasn’t influenced by his constituents. Furthermore I owe it to myself to make sure that my approach to someone who opposes my views is not just a hasty attack fuelled by my disappointment and frustration that everyone isn’t as enlightened and progressive as me. Be positive. Say why equal marriage is a good thing. Things are getting better for LGBT people every day in the UK; we have every reason to be nice, even when we’re talking to people who we know would halt that progress if they could. See it from their point of view: we are stamping all over their dolls, making them share their lego, and expecting them to agree to it with good grace. A spoonful of sugar keeps your conscience clear and your soul a little lighter while you win – and let’s not forget: we are winning.
I learned that not all the ‘antis’ are just names on identical postcards. We’d like to think that the pro camp is made up of individuals who care, and the anti camp is a monolith of obedient churchgoers signing what their priests tell them. We know that in the case of last year’s consultation in Scotland, though the responses taken as a whole came out against equal marriage, the results were literally flipped to about two thirds for equal marriage when postcard campaigns and petitions were left out of the count. But if what McGovern told me is true, he’s been getting a very different story. If I only care about that vote going through in Westminster, I don’t need to care about that. But if I want my MP to know my views, and to represent me faithfully, I owe him more than a stock response. Bringing me to my final lesson…
I learned that it’s always worthwhile looking a person in the face if you can. I didn’t change my MP’s mind about equal marriage by going to see him. He’s not a young man, he’s obviously very committed to his faith, he takes his cues from his church and from what is apparently a socially conservative community, and moreover he knows he doesn’t need to change. He’s in a safe seat and knows his side has already lost the war. He has nothing to lose. He could ‘be a sheep’ as he put it and obediently get in the pen with most of the rest of his party, or he could make what he sees as the brave move to take a stand that loses him nothing other than the votes of a few scattered deviants in his constituency. But now he’s looked one of those deviants in the eye as she told him, politely and simply, that she was disappointed in him, that he’d lost her vote, and why, and I promise you that that made more impact on him than any number of emails. I didn’t change anyone’s mind, but that doesn’t hold true for every MP. Some will swither. Some aren’t sure. Go to their surgery, speak to them face-to-face. Show them how much you care. It will make a difference.
*Leaving aside the question of what the established Church of England’s situation might be, but that’s a rather different kettle of rainbow trout.
This article was originally published on lgbt.co.uk and in Scots Gay magazine.