When anti-gay group Manif Pour Tous organised a rally in Trafalgar Square, Erin Ekins joined the counter protesters in the thick of the action.
I’ve never been one to stand quietly by on the subjects that I believe in. The art of ‘distancing’ oneself from potentially hurtful situations has never been something I have been able to master. If there is a cause that is close to my heart, or I perceive an injustice or a falsehood, then you can guarantee I’ll be the one grabbing my laptop and having a good old rant on forums and message boards (and occasionally the odd Cardiff-based student magazine).
So, when I heard that an anti-marriage equality rally was being organised in Trafalgar Square, my immediate instinct was: ‘let’s get some rainbow flags and blind them with fabulous queerness until they learn their lesson’.
Despite my convictions, I had never been to a protest before – so I was, understandably, a little trepidatious. After all, the organisers of the rally were Manif Pour Tous, who had previously organised the 150,000 strong march in Paris against the introduction of same-sex marriage and adoption rights.
Whilst they weren’t quite up to the standards of the Paris rally, a couple of hundred people gathered in Trafalgar Square bearing the predictable ‘one man, one woman’ and ‘think of the children’ banners. As my friend and I approached, watching as large signs proclaiming the upholding of traditional marriage were hoisted up around Nelson’s Column, I couldn’t help but feel a sickening in my gut.
It wasn’t just a sickening for what I was seeing – it was for where I was seeing it.
You see, in 2009, Ian Baynham was brutally murdered in Trafalgar Square. Why? Because he was gay. Since then, a vigil against hate crime has been held every year at the base of Nelson’s Column; a circle of candles proclaiming ‘no more’, speeches, moments of silence, testimonies from family members of people who have lost their lives to hate crime and a reading of names of all those victims of homophobia, transphobia and racism.
I have been to one of these vigils. It was a deeply moving, important experience, which I will always hold close to my heart.
So seeing these banners being raised, this stage being put together, adults positioning their young children strategically on the Column, resplendent in Manif Pour Tous t-shirts, banners and flags – I could feel an uncomfortable bubbling in my stomach, a tightening, an anger which I wasn’t quite sure how to direct.
Luckily, as I approached, there was a comfy looking rainbow flag beckoning me towards the equally sized group of counter protesters. Needless to say, as I scurried past the scowls that befell my short hair and somewhat alternative clothing, it felt good to be embraced into the comforting bosom of the queer protesters.
The march in London was, as one of the Manif Pour Tous stewards insisted in an attempt to persuade me to go away, an opportunity for the French population of London to march against the French government’s plans. It was not, on paper, a protest against the UK governments Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill, which is currently going through revisions and debates.
However, the crowd that gathered was predominantly English, and as the people on the stage began to coax the crowd to ‘LET DAVID CAMERON HEAR US!!!!!’ (or something equally clichéd), it became clear that the French connections were very much a smoke screen.
As I tried to tell the insistent steward: whether or not it was aimed at Britain was irrelevant to me, as I am concerned with the rights of queer people the world over. But this was, evidentially, a protest in Britain, with British speakers, British participants, and they were protesting a bill that relates directly to my rights as a human being.
Personal does not even begin to cover it.
The sense of camaraderie within the counter protesters was something that I will always remember. As an anti-gay campaigner pushed his way in front of me and began to shout, the man next to me swept forward and held up his hand:
‘This is the finger with my wedding ring on it. And this ’ – he artfully switched fingers – ‘is the finger I am giving to you.’
Partway through, a topless woman managed to get on stage with ‘IN GAY WE TRUST’ painted on her chest. There have been some criticisms of her actions, but, for me, the buzz of seeing someone so free and confident and beautiful in her body and convictions giving the big ‘shame on you!’ to these people and their ideology was indescribable.
As I cheered her on, I felt a man in front of me turn around and, with a look of sheer disgust on his face, spit ‘and you say we’re shameful’. To my utter surprise, and no doubt because the adrenaline rush that came with the woman on stage, I looked him right in the eye (a difficult thing for someone who suffers from deep social anxiety) and replied that they’d spent all afternoon banging on about ‘the natural of order of things’ and you couldn’t get more natural than she was at that very moment.
Moments like this were incredible. They are the reason that I am determined to take part in something like this again. There was a sense of rightness, a sense that we were standing up and fighting for what we believe in, for our rights to live, and that we were standing together, despite the differences in age and size and colour and disposition.
Most importantly, however, was the sense that we were not letting them get away with what they were doing.
Yes, freedom of speech entitles them to say these things. But freedom of speech does not protect you from the conse- quences of such speech – and if you are going to stand on a stage and denounce my life, my self, my rights, then you have to deal with the repercussions (i.e. me holding up a sign and arguing with you).
And, as I said when the same steward implored ‘why we can’t just have a dignified debate about this?’ – human rights are not up for debate. They never are, and never will be. That’s why they are called rights.
Marriage equality is not, for me, the most pressing issue facing the LGBT+ community. In some countries, homosexual behaviour is still punishable by death. LGBT+ children are still committing suicide as a result of bully- ing; hate crimes against LGBT+ people are still prevalent (as, coincidentally, was once again brought to media focus when a French couple were savagely beaten by a split off group of Manif Pour Tous) and the rates of mental health problems and homelessness are still disproportionately high for LGBT+ individuals.
Marriage equality falls second to these things. However, I am a strong believer that we cannot establish ground to fight without a solid legal basis. How can we tell school children not to bully their gay classmates if the very law defines us as ‘different’ and ‘not quite good enough’ to be allowed the same rights as our heterosexual counterparts?
And the truth is that no matter how many times they bellow ‘WE ARE NOT HOMOPHOBIC BUT…’ into their microphones, it is as a direct result of people like them, the passive aggressive homophobes (who tell us they respect us and don’t hate us, but will stand in the freezing cold rain to deny us equal rights), that so many queer children struggle as I did.
The contempt and disgust in their eyes as they turned to me, clutching their homophobic signs, is something I have never experienced before. The sound of someone hovering behind us, screaming Bible passages; the violent waving of an anti-gay flag in front of me to stop a photographer getting a good picture of our ‘Rights for All’ sign; the children positioned on Nelson’s Column, being encouraged to cheer and holler the homophobic sentiments (knowing that many of them will, at some point, come to realise their own sexuality is not in line with the flags these adults made them wave).
One woman stood in front of me, clutching resolutely at her sign and staring directly into my eyes. It was the most unsettling thing I have ever experienced – the resentment that flickered in her gaze, the set of her shoulders, the hatred and conviction that ebbed through every muscle of her body. Eventually, the police escorted her away from us as they could see that we were deeply intimidated by what she was doing. It left us physically shaken. My friend, who is straight but had come (in secret) to support me, said it was one of the most disturbing things she had ever seen.
This is the face of homophobia in our society today. It may not be in fists and arrests and murders, but it is quietly tearing apart lives and destroying souls.
Although I won my arguments with several people, although I calmly stated my piece, recited facts, statistics, experiences of myself and my mother (who recently came out), although they left because they couldn’t win, the very fact of them saying the things that they said brought me to tears.
And that is why we still need to fight.
Marriage equality will happen. But it is not the end of the fight. Instead, it is the beginning of a whole new chapter of campaigning and standing up and waving rainbow flags in the face of hatred that permeates deeper than we realise.
And you can guarantee I’ll be there.