I love words. They’re often very tiny things but they pack a big punch. You can do a great deal of good with them, and a great deal of bad. You can mince them, mangle them, swallow them, spit them out, balance them on the tip of your tongue and trip over them. They can be sharp, harsh, kind, gentle, quiet, cutting, wise and bold. And, as the old saying goes, they don’t cost a penny.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, there are approximately 750,000 words in the English language (although, of course, in reality it’s impossible to count them all). Some of my current favourites are vivacious, kerfuffle and shenanigans. And some of my all-time favourites come from Samuel Johnson’s 1755 Dictionary of the English Language, a work that took him 9 years to complete and included such long-forgotten or little-used classics as fopdoodle (an insignificant person), fribble (to waste time) and abnormous (abnormal or irregular).
Words can be fun and they can be painful, but, however they are used, they are always powerful. As a gay man who grew up in the East Midlands in the 1980s and ’90s and went to a bog-standard comprehensive school where being gay was only ever mentioned in a negative context, I know how powerful words can be.
Being called a sissy or a faggot day after day is not water off a duck’s back for an insecure 13 year old. Well, not this insecure 13 year old anyway, whose back was all too absorbent when it came to hearing words that told him he was different, too different to be allowed to enjoy life like everyone else.
I still remember with crystal clarity where I was and what I was doing when certain hurtful slurs were said. Words from 21 years ago that, fortunately, do not hurt any more, but that can still be heard. That’s pretty powerful stuff.
And I’ll wager that my experience is far from abnormal. I expect that almost every gay man and woman of my generation will have experienced situations at school in which hurtful words were used to single them out for being different, and as a cover for the ignorance, fear and insecurities of the people saying them. The generations before us most certainly experienced it too and the generation of the Noughties has it tough right now contending not only with possible bullying at school, but also a media that is constantly full of homophobes telling them why they should not be allowed to adopt children or get married. 21 years after I first experienced it, words are still being used in this country to make gay people feel small, insignificant and wrong.
But, thankfully, some people are working hard to change that, countering the negative words with positive ones. And nowhere have I seen that taking place more powerfully over the last few weeks than in the House of Lords, during its debates over the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill. Before this bill began to be debated in the Upper Chamber a few weeks ago, I had never watched an entire debate in the House of Lords, nor even part of one. I, like a lot of people, had an image of the House of Lords as full of white men with pointless, archaic titles, who fall asleep a lot during long debates, and a smattering of women and ethnic minorities, with similarly pointless, archaic titles, who also fall asleep during long debates. I assumed, as well, based solely on the fact that my grandmother was the only ‘old’ person I knew fairly well and was distinctly not in favour of homosexuality, that, being as the majority of peers are in their 60s and 70s, with 18% being over the age of 80, support for same-sex marriage would be very low. I couldn’t have been further from the truth. Although the House of Lords is predominantly male, white and old, it most certainly isn’t predominantly anti-gay. And what told me that were the words that I could hear from many of the peers who rose to add their voices in support of equality for all.
On Wednesday, I listened to Lord Wallace of Tankerness (or Jim) say that supporters of the bill want gay people “to be able to marry, plain and simple, in the same way as opposite-sex couples can”. Baroness Barker talked about how the section of the bill that will make it easier for married transgender people to have their gender recognised and remain married if they so wish is “an important step forward for a small number of people who, in the course of their ordinary lives, put up with an awful lot of hostility”, and went on to say that it will make “their lives a bit better and [enable] them to live with a little more dignity”.
Baroness Kennedy of The Shaws used her words to politely cut down Baroness Deech, who was attempting to filibuster (another fabulous word meaning to prolong a debate so long that it cannot actually be passed in the allotted time) by introducing an amendment that would allow anyone living in the same house to enter into a civil partnership for reasons of financial security. In response to Baroness Deech’s disingenuous words about wanting to “extend the hand of equality and a glimmer of hope of support to the thousands…of people who are siblings and have lived together for many years”, Baroness Kennedy of The Shaws told the House that the bill was about “the yearning among human beings to choose someone as your love, to be with your beloved and to share your life with them” and that Baroness Deech’s amendment was “yet another way of trying to scupper the Bill”. She urged everyone “who cares about making sure that there is an end to discrimination towards gay people in this nation” to vote against it. Her words had power; the amendment was defeated 267 to 89.
Perhaps the finest moment for me was when Lord Singh of Wimbledon spoke about the need for a referendum on the issue of same sex marriage because “no attempt whatever was made to consult the electorate before the last election…on the proposed redefinition of marriage” and because most people in the UK oppose the changes. Cue my new heroine, the 85 year old Baroness Turner of Camden, who rose to her feet in response and said:
I listened with amazement as the noble Lord who moved the amendment suggested that somehow or other that was not popular. In my view, this legislation is very popular, particularly with younger people. Perhaps much older people have some doubts about it but, generally speaking, younger people are all in favour of it. I was pleased that after the Second Reading debate, when I looked at my computer, I had messages from all sorts of people, including younger people, saying, “Well done, well done”, about my speech. We do not need a referendum. We should throw this amendment out. It is not worthy at all. Why should it be in the Bill? The amendment is entirely discriminatory, and I urge your Lordships to oppose it.
Credit has to go also to Lord Carlile of Berriew, who told Lord Singh in no uncertain terms that he had “let us, and himself, down” by calling for a referendum on same sex marriage on the grounds that it is a major moral change in society when he had never called for one in the past on any other piece of legislation that had a similar ethical and moral component. Lord Carlile and Baroness Turner’s words helped to ensure that Lord Singh’s wrecking amendment was withdrawn.
I could go on and on quoting from very eloquent members of the House of Lords who stood up to tell the chamber that gay people deserve to be treated equally. I could quote from several members who said, more or less, that they shouldn’t, but their words have been heard for years, centuries even. What struck me, watching the debate, was that now is the time for the words of inclusivity, compassion and love to be heard. No, not everyone in the House of Lords thinks that gay people should be allowed to marry. Not everyone in the House of Commons thinks that gay people should be allowed to marry. Not every ordinary person on the street even. But many, many people do. And their supportive words are being heard. Only by being repeated again and again will they become commonplace, and only by hearing them again and again will the homophobes start to see that they have nothing to fear from granting equal rights to gay people.
There’s a final House of Lords debate next Monday (15th July). Another chance for words of support and reason to be said and to be listened to. I won’t be listening quite so attentively this time as I’ll be outside the Palace of Westminster singing my words in support of equality for all. If you’re in the area come down and join us and add your voice, and your words, to the side of history that supports equality; the right side of history. Be part of the change that is seeing the words of love and compassion drown out the words of hatred and ignorance that have rung so loudly in the ears of gay men and women for centuries. Be there or risk being an abnormous fribbling fopdoodle.
(All quotations taken from Hansard, the official verbatim record of the Houses of Parliament. Find it here)