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MP Calls For End To "Toxic Debates" On LGBT Rights Ten Years After Same-Sex Marriage Legalised

Mike Freer attended the unveiling of London's first Rainbow Crossing at Pride London 2014 (Alamy)

8 min read

Conservative MP Mike Freer has said "heated, toxic debates" over LGBT rights must end, ten years after he fought for his own right to marry his husband with the legalisation of same-sex marriage in England and Wales.

The Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act achieved royal assent on 17 July 2013, and came into effect the following year to allow same-sex couples to marry and convert civil partnerships into marriage.

Freer has been a long-time campaigner for LGBT equality, and spoke of his own personal experience as a gay man in a moving speech to parliament in the debate over the bill in 2013. He was Equalities Minister between September 2021 and July 2022, before resigning in protest of Boris Johnson’s leadership and accusing the government of "creating an atmosphere of hostility for LGBT+ people''.

“I would like it to not be a debate anymore,” Freer told PoliticsHome when asked what progress needs to be made over the next decade.

“We shouldn't be debating women's rights, we shouldn't be debating inequalities in health outcomes, whether it's for women, or for LGBT people.

“It’s a difficult thing to say but within another 10 years what I want is simply to stop having these heated toxic debates about inequalities. Human rights really are not debatable.”

Stressing that LGBT people “just want to get on with their lives”, Freer said he believes today’s debates around transgender rights have “echoes” of the gay rights struggles of the 20th century.

“A lot of the trans debate, it does have echoes of what was going on in the 70s and 80s, which makes me uncomfortable,” he said. Freer argued that the approach needed is both practical measures to ensure improved healthcare for trans people, and a responsibility to ensure respectful debate over some of the most complex issues.

The Conservative MP said he thought much of the most toxic debate around trans people stems from ignorance, and that many people do not know any trans people themselves and therefore are not being fully aware of the problems they face. 

“Remember, people are involved,” he said. “I think we would be in a much better place if we had a much more balanced debate and a reasoned outcome.”

Freer believes strongly that transgender people should be included in the long-awaited ban on conversion therapy, which has been delayed with no draft bill yet tabled in parliament.

While recognising legislation might not be “perfect” straight away, he said it was important for the ban to be implemented as soon as possible. 

“My view is, no legislation is perfect. I'd rather have a piece of legislation that gets most of the issues addressed, rather than trying to come up with a perfect piece of legislation. 

“Get something on the statute book that does the job and then you can always revisit and fine tune. If you're waiting for legislation to be perfect, you'll be waiting a long time.”

However, Freer said he recognised it takes time to see meaningful societal change and that decades of political campaigning led up to the legalisation of same-sex marriage and the Equality Act of 2010, which formed the basis of anti-discrimination law in the UK. 

“We have to realise it didn't happen overnight, a lot of our changes on equalities took 30 years,” he said.

“Sometimes you have to work with the grain, stop, consolidate. Sometimes you push and then let people catch up, and that's a hard thing to get right. Sometimes we push too hard and you get too much of a reaction against you.

“Politicians do have to set the agenda and try to bring society with us, but also know when to stop and consolidate. I appreciate that those outside parliament don't always like it because others want to go further and faster, but inside parliament you have to know how to work with the grain.”

In this sense, Freer believes some lessons were learned from the same-sex marriage campaign, primarily on how to humanise debate in parliament, where often MPs are in a “bubble”.

“Where we make the biggest progress, particularly on more contentious social change, is by actually making it human so members of parliament really understand the human cost of acting or not acting,” he said.

“The big learning from the equal marriage debate was when colleagues stood up and explained their personal circumstances and why equal marriage was important to them, that is what shifted the dial.”

Freer himself was one of those individuals, by standing up in front of parliament and speaking about the personal impact the Marriage Act would have on him as a gay man. In January 2015, he converted his civil partnership with his long-term partner into a marriage only a month after the act came into force.

“I thought long and hard about seeking to speak in this debate. I genuinely feared the tone of the debate and how colleagues would seek to oppose the bill,” Freer told the House of Commons in 2013. 

“So when colleagues talked about gay marriage making them physically sick – or when colleagues suggested it was a step towards legalising polygamy or incest… they need to remember that there are people involved and we should remember that the words spoken in this chamber hurt far beyond this chamber when we speak.

“I’m not asking for special treatment, I am simply asking for equal treatment.”

Reflecting on his speech, Freer told PoliticsHome that the initial instinct was to allow “straight allies” to lead the charge in favour of same-sex marriage. 

“And then what became clear is that we needed to ensure that everybody spoke,” he continued.

“We decided we’ve got to put our heads above the parapet. The debate was then a mixture of straight allies and gay MPs, many of whom recounted their own personal experiences, some of whom had encountered terrible homophobia.”

But many of Freer’s Conservative colleagues were still not convinced. 136 Tory MPs voted against the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill and 127 voted in favour, making Freer a minority in his party. 

Did it ever make him feel uncomfortable, disagreeing with colleagues over his own right to marry the man he loved? “Oh yeah,” he replied. 

He said he respected the religious views of some colleagues who voted against the bill, but that there were others who had “no real logic” as to why marriage had to be between a man and a woman. 

“We sat around a table in the tearoom and people were venting their views and at that point it got a little bit uncomfortable,” Freer said. 

“Certainly with one of my colleagues things were a bit tense because he believed [same-sex marriage] would lead to incest. For a while, our relationship came under some strain.

“But the great thing about this place is you have these very deep, heated, personal debates and then bizarrely the next day it's all healed.”

A number of individual Conservative MPs have changed their position since voting against same sex marriage, including Conservative MP for Beckenham, Bob Stewart, who apologised in 2018 for previously voting against same-sex marriage, after he had seen "the joy" it had brought to same-sex couples.

“I think those who have stood up and said ‘I've got this wrong’ are very, very genuine,” Freer insisted. 

“I've had conversations with [Bob Stewart] and I think he's genuinely shifted his opinion, because what they thought would happen, just simply hasn't happened.

“The issue of marriage hasn't been devalued, the churches haven’t collapsed, society hasn't crumbled. So they've actually seen that this has brought a lot of joy to people, and all of their fears have not come to pass.”

Since the legislation passed with a minority of Tory MPs and the support of opposition parties, Freer argues the Conservative government has overseen a number of other progressive changes. 

“We are addressing the inequality of IVF for lesbian couples as part of the public health strategy, we've extended the HPV vaccinations to boys and men who have sex with men,” Freer listed. 

“So we have a huge track record of actually making practical improvements to the lives of the LGBT community but that often gets drowned out by other debates.”

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