‘The four horsemen of the apocalypse have not turned up as people said they would’

Lewisham Councillor James J Walsh helped force the Marriage Act through parliament and explains why gay activism must be continued today

James J Walsh and friends on the day the Marriage Act was passed (Pic: James Walsh)

James J Walsh looks to the picture sitting proudly on his desk in Rushney Green: four faces, all smiling and glassy-eyed with rainbows painted onto their cheeks. “That was the day the bill was passed,” Walsh says nostalgically. A day, he says, that despite “all the hatred flying around was so unbelievably warm and awe-inspiring” – that’s how he’ll always remember the Gay Marriage Act’s passing in 2013. Since the photo was taken James has changed little: his hair is still gelled into that same distinct quiff that would appear to hold firm even on the windiest of days.

James came out to his mother in 2001 “hot on the heels of section 28”, the Thatcherite policy that banned the promotion of homosexuality. “My mother cried and didn’t talk to me for a while,” he said, “The two things that she was concerned about were grandchildren and HIV.” Nobody is really scared of these things today he says, adding proudly, “and I think the gay marriage bill was certainly a step in achieving that.”

Reflecting on his time lobbying the government during the 2013 campaign, Walsh says that Britain is “wedded to a theological belief system; the split in our country between the government and the church is not as advanced as it is in other places”. It is this fact, he says, that “delayed the bill being passed or even debated for so long.”

The 2013 House of Lords debate was characterised by comments such as those by Lord Tebbit, a longstanding member of Margaret Thatcher’s cabinet, who famously tried to persuade the house that “the present law of marriage does not discriminate against homosexuals” as “the rights of a homosexual man are identical to mine… we are both free to marry a woman.” Similarly, Lord Carey, the former archbishop of Canterbury, wrote in an article saying how same-sex marriage sets a “dangerous precedent” which could lead to “sibling marriage or polygamy”.

“It really highlighted how out of step areas our government can be with normal people,” Walsh recalls. “I just don’t understand how these people are in these places making laws, like how on earth is that allowed? At some point, we do have to ask ourselves: who are these people serving?”

Unlike the House of Commons where representatives are easy to contact, the Lords had always been “far more impenetrable” for lobbyists. No one had ever devised a way of contacting a Lord in the same way you can write to your MP on a specific issue. Hence James devised his “Lobby a Lord” software. “The idea,” he said, “was based on a sort of chat roulette where a letter would be sent randomly to the inbox of a peer asking them to support the bill.”

James said the Lobby a Lord program was one of many things that swayed the second chamber; 390 peers voted for the bill and 148 against. “The fact that the House of Lords voted more progressively than the commons says a lot,” Walsh says. He thinks it is partly because the Lords are less swayed by the 24-hour news cycle than MPs, but the Lobby a Lord Campaign was undoubtedly a triumph. Grindr, the world’s largest gay dating app, urged its million-plus UK users to lobby peers. James later gave the program coding away to other charities such as the Terrence Higgins Trust (THT).

Today, James Walsh still keeps the Out4Marriage Facebook page running, celebrating every anniversary of the bill. He also says the mission of the page has now changed and aims to help other countries achieve marriage equality. Given that the British empire “imported homophobic legislation into its colonies” he says, it is now our responsibility to help other countries achieve the equality that we have here in the UK. Using the example of Jamaica, he said, “some Commonwealth countries still keep their highest court in London so there is a lot we can do from the UK.”

Same-sex marriage protests (Pic: James Walsh)

Ten years on from the gay marriage victory, Walsh – now a Lewisham Councillor – is still campaigning for LGBTQ+ rights locally, too. In 2018 he wrote a research paper on the inequalities that still exist, and off the back of that implemented “Pride in Practice” which set a standard practice for healthcare provision of the LGBTQ+ community in Lewisham. These new standards acknowledge the misuse of drug and alcohol substances amongst LGBTQ+ people and aims to help. It also acknowledges the high rate of HIV in Lewisham and sets a target to halve infections by 2030.

Walsh will celebrate the tenth anniversary of the Marriage Act with a level of pride that not many are deserving of. “Gay marriage was compared to a tsunami, to a deadly sin, 10 years on the four horsemen of the apocalypse have not turned up” he said, “and they never will.”

This article is part of our series, A decade since ‘I do’: celebrating same-sex marriage in London, click here to read our other stories.

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