An Open Letter to Lord This, Baroness That and Viscount Other

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Dear Members of the House of Lords.

I have been watching your debate on the amendment to the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill over the last two days and I have to confess that at times I wondered whether I would be better occupied in making a large batch of leek and potato soup with produce from the allotment. However, I stuck with it and have a few observations to make on your performance.

I am not going to refer directly to any contributor as singling individuals out will have the effect of letting the rest of you off the hook. You are supposed to be a revising chamber, a place to tease out and hopefully improve some of the mad, bad and incompetent thinking of the Commons. Your own personal experiences across many disciplines are usually helpful in this process, but not always. During the last two days some of you have seemed reluctant to enter the last century, never mind the 21st.  In my mind’s eye the same words could have been said on the verandah of a cotton plantation in the USA or the drawing room of a stately home. You were talking about the servants in front of the servants. You knew we were watching but nonetheless you opened your collective mouths and said things about us which were demeaning, inaccurate, alarmist and hurtful.

I am an old man. I am a gay old man. I am a gay old man with the same wonderful partner for the last 22 years. I also have two sons, two daughters – in – law and four grandchildren. When I was growing up homosexuality was illegal. People went to prison for consensual activities with another adult of any age. In my lifetime! Did it affect me, this denial of my sexual existence? Of course it did. It was not until I was in my thirties that I was able to really come to terms with who I was. In the meantime I had married a truly great lady and had had the aforementioned children of whom I am justly proud.

I am  now also a proud gay man and have served my time as an advocate of gay equality going on many marches and protests. I particularly remember delaying a summer holiday so I could march through Rugby, where the Mayor had recently espoused the view that gay people should have a bullet in the head, carrying my suitcases! Alas, now time and a dodgy hip preclude further escapades and I have handed the baton on. I am also the co founder of a London wide charity which has provided support to people living with HIV. I have made a contribution to my country. I expect my country to acknowledge me, as I am, not as others would wish me to be.

I will not rehearse  the arguments that were made against the supporters of the amendment, but as someone who is living the gay life and not just talking about it in ignorance from outside, I will say this. Civil partnership was a welcome stepping stone to full recognition. I accept that it was needed as a bridge to acceptance. It provided a limited legal contract and a lunch with family and friends. It was not marriage; it was deliberately not marriage to appease some of you who still voted against it, even though you say it is wonderful today.

If I go out with my family, we may have a pub lunch sitting in the garden. If all my children and grandchildren can sit at one table and my partner and I are required to sit at another which is “equal but different” all of us will object. What some of you seemed to ignore or not know is that LBGT people are in every family and whereas those of my generation were often circumspect, the following generations are not. Just doing an impression of Henny-Penny moaning that the sky’s  a- falling doesn’t cut it.

When you are considering bills which concern particular groups in society you normally give particular weight to the views of that group so that the legislation is effective. Yet in this case you collectively think you know better than we do what is in our best interests and thus deny us respect. Ask yourselves, honestly, why is that? Is it because the case for  equality is overwhelming and you are overwhelmed?

Some of you might have deep genuine religious reasons for not accepting same sex marriage, some of you just don’t like gay people and hide it badly, but all of you have a duty to legislate for the good of all your citizens, not just the ones who you agree with.  You have an opportunity to make my grandchildren happy, take it.

Yours truly

Mike Pennell

An open letter to archbishop John Sentamu

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Dear Dr Sentamu

I have read your opinion piece in the Guardian about same-sex marriage and although I did not go on from there to read your full paper on the subject, I presume that the extended article does not include your recantation, apology for upset and acceptance of equal treatment in law. Normally I do not take much notice of reactionary old men; I see one every time I look in the mirror. However, I must make an exception in your case, as I did in a previous blog on this site with cardinal Keith O’Brien, a catholic fellow traveller of yours.

I must confess to a certain disappointment in you. When you first became the archbishop of York I thought that you brought a new breath of life into the Church. I admired your stand against president Mugabe of Zimbabwe, especially as he had been so dismissive of gay people, and I anticipated a modernising effect on the edifice with a concomitant challenge to the past. Of course, I was wrong. What we have in you is someone as out of touch as the sad lord Carey but with a political nous that he lacks. You are not in the same cadre as David Cameron who earnestly supported Section 28, condemning gay relations as “pretend” families, but now “because he is a conservative” is in support of same-sex marriage. No, your politics are firmly within the christian camp. A cynic might opine that you were more concerned about the dubious prize of the top job and appeasing those who might influence suggestions for that appointment, rather than making your church more inclusive. This same cynic might also conclude that keeping a steady ship, with a nod to the fundamentalist wing here and abroad would do you no harm even if your aspiration to succeed Rowan Williams is thwarted. When all is said and done, you, John Sentamu, owe your living and lifestyle to the church and it is not in your personal interest to challenge the status quo in any serious way.

When legislation pertaining to a particular sector of society is proposed then consultation with that sector should have greater weight than mere general opinion. There are examples, of course, where general opinion has been damaging to the interests of vulnerable groups, such as the shameful assault on welfare provision for the disabled. In the main, interested parties should expect their views to be more persuasive, especially if the proposed actions have little or no effect on others. It should be thus for the proposal to allow same-sex people to enter into civil marriage. As you accept in your Guardian article, one marriage has no bearing on another. The sky did not fall in when a previous archbishop helped create a whole new church to allow a king to divorce, nor when rape was outlawed within marriage. The idea that marriage is some exclusive club for one man and one woman ordained by a god is not even borne out in the Bible that you say must define the relationship. Just the use of a search engine will provide multiple examples of different marriage structures over time and I find it difficult to believe that someone who is a leader of thought has not used his time more productively.

The introduction of same-sex civil marriage will not cause any church to even blink an eye unless it chooses to do so. All the leaders of the main religions have pejorative things to say about gay people. Sometimes these are dressed up in fancy words of the “hating sin, but not the sinner” type, other times they are quite blatant about their dislike, disgust or hatred and what they would like to do with gay people. I don’t play in their yard but they insist in interfering in mine. We had the same tired rhetoric when civil partnerships were first introduced. Society was supposed to be going to hell in a hand cart then. What is it about gay people that exercises you so much, Dr Sentamu? Why do you find it so necessary to waste as much energy on this when you could be a constructive thorn in the side of this destructive government, rallying support for the weakest in society. That is the social pluralism you should be promoting.

Yours truly

Mike Pennell

An Open Letter to Cardinal Keith O’Brien

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Dear Cardinal O’Brien

I have read and heard your various recent observations about the forthcoming public consultation on extending civil marriage to include same sex marriage. As I don’t know you, I am prepared to believe that your reported views are ones which you genuinely hold. You have been an ordained priest since 1965 so I suspect you know more about Roman Catholicism than I do. I am not a Catholic and my religious teaching has been limited to attending Sunday School when I was six, although my presence was due mainly to the promise of a full set of Noddy books if I completed a year there.

Now, about the time that you were becoming a priest I had just completed my education at an all boys grammar school where  5 of the 33 lads in my class were, if not “friends of Dorothy” at least on nodding acquaintance with her. But as it was the non-swinging sixties in outer London no-one could actually put a name to our feelings or disposition. Such sex education as I had,  amounted to observing the frog’s life cycle and seeing a few slides about rabbits provided by an uncomfortable biology teacher. I left school as confused as I had entered it. You were a science teacher yourself between 1966 and 1971 so I hope you managed to enlighten your students in a truthful way.

My work life started in the City of London and I bought The Times every day to impress my fellow commuters but it was way over my head. I did, however read the News of the World, which was delivered to my parents every Sunday. In that mighty organ I could read about the downfall of scoutmasters, teachers and priests. Articles finishing with reporters saying  “I made my excuses and left” were a constant feature of my Sunday reading. You will, of course, know that being gay was illegal at that time. Any mention of gay people was derogatory;  the press, politicians and the police were completely hostile;  blackmail and queer bashing were routine. Even after the Sexual Offences Act of 1967 which partially legalised gay sex, prosecutions continued.

With that as a backdrop many gay people felt unable to come out, even to themselves and I was one of those. I got married in church;  the vicar wore a crumpled surplus, it still rankles; and after some years I got divorced. You will be pleased to hear, Cardinal, that my marriage was blessed with children. I have two fine grown sons with families of their own and four grandchildren. My ex-wife is still one of my best friends. I also have a male partner and we have had 21 wonderful years together. When the civil partnerships were introduced we had a ceremony with friends and family present and it was a joyful day. I still feel that I have been married for 21 years though. I have had a strong and loyal companion who has shared the knocks of life with me. I have  fought many battles on the road to equality. I was a lay branch officer for a major trades union and I helped to shape its policy on sexual orientation. I even led a march on the Isle of Man parliament during a conference to protest at it’s refusal to legalise gay sex. I was a co founder of a London wide AIDS charity at a time when government action was lacking.

Like you, Cardinal, I have known birth and death. Unlike you, that knowledge has stretched me, shaped me and changed me. I will not be bullied by you. I recognise you as an outdated, frightened old trade union leader. You have your policies and practices and you have to hold on to them otherwise the world changes and you become redundant. Even if over the last forty odd years you have changed your opinions and position you cannot say so because your job, your home, your life depends on saying the same thing over and over again. As I understand it,  the majority of Catholics do not follow your proscription on birth control, yet you still recite it. You are supposed to not recognise divorce yet you open your doors to married clergy fleeing women bishops. If I actually bothered to study your feudal religion no doubt I could come up with many more examples of Catholic dogma that is totally irrelevant to today’s society in general and Catholics in particular.

According to the entry in Wikipedia about you it says that before becoming a Cardinal “O’Brien was regarded as relatively liberal on the issue of homosexuality, acknowledging the significant number of homosexual priests in the Roman Catholic Church. This even led to suggestions that he was being “disloyal” to church teaching.” The source was The Telegraph, 2003.  Since becoming a Cardinal in 2005 you seem to have gone off the rails a bit, forgetting what you knew to be true and starting on the road to “sexual aberrations” and “shame the United Kingdom” and describing gay marriage as “grotesque”.  Why are you expending all this acerbic energy on a loving and joyful something which doesn’t concern you? Why don’t you concentrate on all the hateful things in the world that do concern you;  the cover-up of abominable priests, promoting use of condoms to prevent disease in developing countries and providing an inclusive adoption service for children in care?

Today I find that your  fellow trade union bosses Vincent Nichols and Peter Smith, the Archbishops of Westminster and Southwark, respectively, have felt it necessary to urge Catholics in England and Wales to stick the boot in as well. I hope ordinary decent people who live in the real world will see their intervention for what it is. It might be worded better than your outbursts but it is still full of frightened outrage.

Yours truly

Mike Pennell

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