Thursday, 13 March 2014

Lynne Featherstone: Wedded To Same-Sex Marriage

Lynne Featherstone MP vowed to introduce it early on in her office, but the path to same-sex marriage has not been smooth, writes Charlotte Kelloway.

March 29 marks an important day in British history: it is the first day that same-sex marriages can take place. After years of campaigning and consulting, of speeches and hard work, the day will finally arrive when two people of the same sex can get married and enjoy the same rights as heterosexual couples.

And the person who pushed all this through - who worked relentlessly to make this hope a reality - couldn't be more pleased.

"It's the happiest thing ever both for me as a politician, but also for those people who love each other and who weren't treated the same as everyone else," grins Lynne Featherstone.

This is something Featherstone has pushed for since her second day in her former role as Equalities Minister (she is now a Minister in the Department for International Development). After attending an introductory Ministerial meeting and being told that, if she wanted to do anything useful or proactive, she'd have to prioritise early and ruthlessly, Featherstone decided there and then that achieving same-sex marriage would be her goal.

"I thought 'I don't know how many times in history there's going to be a Liberal Democrat Equalities Minister so I'm going to do something for equalities.' And the first thing that sprang to mind was same-sex marriage," says Featherstone, who returned to her office after the meeting, gathered her civil servants together and asked what steps she would need to take to achieve same-sex marriage.

However, the path that eventually led to the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013 receiving royal assent on 17 July 2013 was long, complex and fraught with governmental hoops. Lynne was in charge of putting together the consultation on same-sex marriage and spent a lot of time meeting with campaigners, lawyers and faith groups.

She also worked with activist groups asking for their support. "Whilst I expected Liberal Democrats to support it, it wasn't clear to me that we could get it through on our own," she says, adding, "It was very much a case of ego back and issue forward."

And when it came to opposition, there was a lot. "The scale of uproar and fury in the media, and the sort of things that were being said by religious leaders who were opposed to it, were extreme," says Featherstone, who admits there were times she felt same-sex marriage would never see the light of day, "I thought when I introduced permissive religious same-sex marriages, which was half way through the process, that might provoke a further fury that would not be able to sustain it," she muses.

However, Featherstone received support from some of the most surprising places in Whitehall, from people she never expected, including her own Secretary of State at the time, Theresa May. When it was first announced in 2010 that May would be the Minister for Women and Equalities alongside her role of Home Secretary, there was uproar on Twitter about her voting record on gay rights as she had previously voted against greater adoption rights for homosexual couples.

However, on Question Time, shortly after the election, May admitted she was sorry and had changed her mind. It was at that point, Featherstone, who was watching the programme at the time, felt she may have an ally in Theresa May. "When I first went to her with my proposal, it took her a couple of days to think about it and come back to me but she said yes and, at the many times when we were under pressure from one direction or the other, she was always persuadable and she was always there to support me," says Featherstone.

She also credits Nick Clegg for his support, stepping in to save the day when interventions were needed at the highest of levels, and the support of LGBT+ Lib Dems and the campaign for same-sex marriage.

One thing Featherstone does want to make herself clear on is the issue of opposite sex civil partnerships. Lynne had initially hoped to deliver on these as well as same-sex marriage but wasn't able to secure both.

However, she has no doubt they will follow shortly and make an appearance in the Liberal Democrat manifesto.

Despite the rocky road that led to the introduction of same-sex marriage, the opposition faced and the allies made along the way, the destination is a joyous place for Featherstone made all the more satisfying by couples approaching her and thanking her for all the work she has done. "Everywhere I go, there will always be someone who will come up to me and say thank you, and it literally makes me cry every time because I don't think people realise how hurtful it is not be able to love someone and express that love through marriage, which is the traditional time-honoured way of saying I love you publicly." She excitedly adds that she will be attending the first same-sex marriage in her constituency on the 29th - a final visual consolidation of her work - although shes' not sure yet whether she'll be buying a hat!

Featherstone's work has been recognised by Attitude magazine, who awarded her their Politician of the Year Award 2012, and the likes of Ben and Jerry's, who named a special edition ice-cream after her - Lynne Honeycomb - congratulating her for all her work in ensuring that couples could live 'apple-y ever after'. "I thought that was the nicest thing - I've got the tub at home," she laughs.

However, whilst believing she is "the luckiest Liberal Democrat in history" for being able to push through something she feels so passionately about and make a real difference to people's lives, Featherstone feels ultimate credit must go to those in the gay community who have suffered and so bravely spoken out so that one day same-sex marriage would be a reality.

Unfortunately, some people are still suffering and Featherstone believes there is still much more to be done in the UK and internationally to promote LGBT rights.

"There are 70 countries in which homosexuality is still illegal and we have a very long way to go to change laws and hearts and minds in other continents," she says.

Within her new Ministerial role in the Department for International Development, Featherstone has raised LGBT rights in Africa but admits she has to do so privately when meeting with governments and Ministers as the backlash of doing so publicly would be paid for by the gay community. "I'm guided in my work in Africa by those very brave active gay groups who advise me what is and isn't possible at any time," she says, before pausing and adding, "But move forward we will."

As well as continuing to promote the rights of the gay community, Featherstone is also working on several other projects including campaigns tackling female genital mutilation and violence against women which, if she addresses them with the same passion and perseverance as her drive for same-sex marriage, will also have a brighter future.