When campaigners fight for a change in the law, they are usually responding to an urgent injustice that can most swiftly be tackled by legislation. And why wouldn’t they? If children need to be safer or the planet needs to be protected, the urgency cannot be denied.
Yet legislative change is no guarantee of lasting progress. In the US, we have seen the rights of gay people shift back and forth as state laws are enacted and repealed. I cannot imagine how it must feel to win the right to marry, to gain the love of your life as husband or wife, only to be told it’s worth no more than the paper it’s written on. It was not until the Supreme Court ruled for nationwide recognition that some kind of stability prevailed. Our legislative system might be different, but as I look around the world today I see all kinds of norms and assumptions shifting. Progress that we might have assumed was set in stone is again in flux. If social change can be undone in a moment, how do we build change that lasts?
Five years ago, same-sex couples in most of the UK won the legal right to marry. But it would be a mistake to think of this simply as a law-change campaign. It took decades of community-building, culture-shifting, relationship-nurturing, attention-grabbing action before even the socially conservative House of Lords could no longer deny that the discrimination was unacceptable.
This month, I had the very great privilege of hearing about the fight for equal marriage from three people who were at the heart of the struggle. Baroness Barker shared her insights into how campaigners interacted with the formal power of parliament. Benjamin Cohen shed light on the power of the media to shift cultural "norms". Peter Tatchell spoke of the galvanising power of activism.
Arguably, the most important change was the shift in public attitudes. While many were debating whether gay people wanted or needed access to a heteronormative institution such as marriage, the celebrity civil partnerships of Elton John, Alan Cumming and Stephen Gately (you know, the one from Boyzone) were splashed across our checkout magazines. Frankly, by 2013 most of us were puzzled why the government didn’t just get on and do it already.
Each aspect of the collective campaign was vital. We needed people to tell their stories, communities to come together to celebrate love, activists to challenge bigotry, Good Morning Britain to ask the important questions about what couples were going to wear and, ultimately, parliament to legislate. Remove one of these and the foundations of the change were weaker.
Unfortunately, that brings us to another truth about change: it’s never over. Since 2010, progressive shifts in social attitudes have slowed and we are seeing the rise of hate as a political force.
When we build a social change, it must be built on strong foundations, embraced by individuals, communities, institutions and society at large. And once we have, it must be fiercely protected and wildly celebrated. If the story of the fight for equal marriage teaches campaigners one thing, it must be that we must make sure change is worth so much more than the paper (or vellum) it’s written on.
Sue Tibballs is chief executive or the Sheila McKechnie Foundation. SMK’s first Change Network event examined the fight for equal marriage. The next will be held on 31 January 2019