Opinion: UK sets the right example on same sex marriage

The Polish parliament - Some rights reserved by Kancelaria PremieraIt’s been a week of ups and downs with regard to marriage equality and I am not just talking about in Britain. This week the Polish parliament voted down a bill that would have introduced civil partnerships. Despite an impassioned plea by Prime Minister Donald Tusk, a significant part of his governing party voted against the bill, teaming up with conservative members to destroy any chance it had of becoming law. Indeed, one member declared that she would be voting against the bill because gay people “are of no use whatsoever to society.” From this position, equal marriage seems a long way off.

As a Brit (and a Lib Dem) who has lived in Poland for the past eight years, I have witnessed many changes here but this is still the least diverse country in Europe. The strength and dominance of the catholic church, although waning, make it a challenging environment to be different. On a more positive note, 2011 saw the first openly gay member of parliament and also the first transgender MP, Anna Grodzka, elected. So there are signs that attitudes in society are changing.

As the much analysed census figures have shown us in the past few weeks, the relationship between Poland and the UK is a close one. Polish is now being the second language spoken in England and some 546,000 Poles reside in the UK after Poland’s accession to the EU in 2004. Some of the first Poles I met in the UK after accession were people who had come to the UK not only for economic reasons but also for reasons of tolerance and acceptance. We should take some pride in the fact that the UK is seen by many across the globe as a beacon of rights, freedoms and tolerance. I am especially proud that, now the Lib Dems are in government, we are at the vanguard of establishing equal marriage rights for all.

That being said, it is with some bewilderment and sadness that I see some members of the parliamentary party are wavering on which way to vote. When I discuss this fact with Polish friends in Warsaw they are slightly bemused as to how a person calling themselves a liberal, should want to maintain this inequity in society. Of course it is well understood (especially in Poland) that the issue of gay marriage may challenge the consciences of those who hold strong religious beliefs. But it should be our obligation to make this commitment to equal marriage thereby setting an example to other countries like Poland on how they should move forward and build a fairer and more equal society. If Lib Dem MPs in the UK can’t bring themselves to support equal marriage then why should conservative-minded MPs in Poland?

In the past few years I have flown back to the UK for autumn conferences. I have also helped in election campaigns to fight for our party in what must have been some of the most challenging times (politically) since the party’s creation. We all know that the next election will be particularly brutal, with many of our MPs fighting for their political survival. MPs who vote against this legislation will certainly be alienating people like me and I will look to deploy my campaigning support to those who have stood up for my rights and for fundamental liberal equality. In the meantime, my partner and I have decided to wait for changes to Polish law before we make it official. It could be some wait…

* Daniel Russell is a teacher, editor and academic writer. He has been a Lib Dem member for 23 years and is currently living in Warsaw.

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14 Comments

  • Helen Tedcastle 4th Feb '13 - 12:44pm

    The term ‘marriage’ refers to a particular relationship between a man and a woman. Equality before the law yes, i.e. civil partnerships.

  • “The term ‘marriage’ refers to a particular relationship between a man and a woman.”

    Not any more Helen. And, of course, not even historically. Apparently you need to do some revision of the Old Testament …

  • Pawel Swidlicki 4th Feb '13 - 1:32pm

    Always good to see international issues debated on LDV.

    Overall a good and accurate article and for anyone with a connection to Poland the sentiments expressed by some MPs in the debate are deeply shameful.

    Nonetheless I have to take issue with your statement that Poland is “still the least diverse country in Europe”. Not sure what you mean by that – do you mean least tolerant of LGBT rights? And do you mean “the EU” rather than Europe as a whole? I hardly think the situation is better in countries like Belarus, Moldova or Ukraine. Not to mention that there are still significant challenges to be overcome in many more superficially liberal EU states and of course the UK as well. Also I’d be wary of generalising about Poland as a whole – there are big differences between the more liberal cities such as Warsaw, Krakow, Gdansk, Wroclaw etc. and poorer rural areas where attachment to traditional Catholic social values is strongest.

    In terms of general diversity, the Polish parliament has proportionately more female MPs than the UK (24% vs 22%). It also has 2 BME MPs which given that Poland is much more ethnically homogeneous than the UK is also a significant achievement. Likewise Poland has one transgender MP compared to zero in Westminster.

    In conclusion there is still a long way to go but the struggle for minority rights around the world has rarely been smooth and without setbacks, and each such defeat is usually a milestone along the way towards greater equality. I am cautiously optimistic about the future – ten years ago even a narrow defeat for civil partnerships would have been seen as wildly optimistic.

  • Richard Shaw 4th Feb '13 - 1:45pm

    “The term ‘marriage’ refers to a particular relationship between a man and a woman.”

    …and the term ‘democracy’ refers to a particular relationship between a man and a ballot box.

    “Equality before the law yes, i.e. civil partnerships.”

    … which aren’t legally equivalent to marriage.

  • Richard Dean 4th Feb '13 - 2:07pm

    No woman and ballot box?

  • Daniel, I’m sorry to hear about this sad state of affairs. I know that liberal-minded people from all walks of life will be appalled by:
    ” Indeed, one member declared that she would be voting against the bill because gay people “are of no use whatsoever to society.” From this position, equal marriage seems a long way off.”

    On the radio this year, the presenter asked if people who have a problem with Equal Marriage “just have a problem with gay people” . These ‘protectors of traditional marriage’ don’t seem to object to marriage being ‘undermined ‘by divorce, adultery, incest (marrying first cousins), domestic violence, etcetera but seek to ban a loving couple from marrying. Tomorrow, the House of Commons will end this discrimination by a large majority – I hope Poland will do this too one day.

  • Richard Shaw 4th Feb '13 - 2:55pm

    @ Richard Dean

    I was pointing out that it’s not unheard of for things to change, even if they date from ‘time immemorial’, such as women not being permitted to participate in democracy.

  • Helen Tedcastle 4th Feb '13 - 3:45pm

    @ Phyllis: ” ‘protectors of traditional marriage’ don’t seem to object to marriage being ‘undermined ‘by divorce, adultery, incest (marrying first cousins), domestic violence, etcetera but seek to ban a loving couple from marrying.”

    What’s the evidence for this assertion that those want to keep the definition of marriage as it is don’t object to these things?

    There is nothing they want more, I suspect, than to enhance and protect marriage.

  • Helen, like most conservatives you only want to conserve tradition and ownership as far back as a point in time that suits your position. This is why your arguments are so thin.

  • Matthew Huntbach 4th Feb '13 - 11:19pm

    Daniel Russell

    If Lib Dem MPs in the UK can’t bring themselves to support equal marriage then why should conservative-minded MPs in Poland?

    But that is not the issue here. The issue here is not, as in the case of Poland you are writing about, whether there should be a legal recognition of same-sex partnerships. We have that here already. It seems to me to be a good compromise – the RC Church here grumbled about it at first, but now largely accepts it. The issue here is insisting that it be called “marriage” and that “marriage” means merely a relationship between a “loving couple”. The argument that marriage is also a commitment to rear children together, and the concern that extending it to gay couples on the grounds that it’s just a recognition of love means weakening the social understanding that support of children carries on even if the romantic love bit doesn’t, does not seem to me to be so illogical that it’s not worth considering and those who express it are worthy only of rude personal comments about them which actually miss the point they were trying to make.

  • “The argument that marriage is also a commitment to rear children together, and the concern that extending it to gay couples on the grounds that it’s just a recognition of love means weakening the social understanding that support of children carries on even if the romantic love bit doesn’t, does not seem to me to be so illogical that it’s not worth considering and those who express it are worthy only of rude personal comments about them which actually miss the point they were trying to make.”

    But marriage isn’t “a commitment to rear children together”, or couples who cannot have children would not be able to marry, would they? The argument is based on a false premise. How much more illogical can an argument be?

  • I think this tweet I read says it all:
    “It’s time to be honest: the arguments against #equalmarriage just don’t stack up unless you want laws to enshrine faith-based positions…”.

  • Again, to all my anti gay-marriage friends. No one is saying you have to support same-sex marriages, or believe they are in any way morally legitimate. That is your right and follows in accordance with freedom of conscience. None of your objections answer the key question: why should the STATE not recognise the marriages of gay people who are citizens and want to be married? Why is the state’s job to define everyone’s marriage for them? This is the thing that I really, really struggle with. You think marriage includes the idea of procreation. I say bull, but fine. That’s your take. You can keep that view. But why should the state enshrine your view in law over mine, nay many people who disagree with you? Why should I pay one jot of attention to your view on this?

  • Mpg “why should the STATE not recognise the marriages of gay people who are citizens and want to be married? ”

    Yes quite so. And also faiths such as the Quakers who DO wish to marry same-sex couples.

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