Monday, February 27, 2012

On Marriage Equality

Two young women wearing bridal veils kissing amid what looks like a Pride March. Caption reads:
"Threat: Homosexuals in bridal veils kiss in the street. Such communions would jeopardise
the stability of our country."  
Taking a break from advocating welfare cuts on the grounds that their architect is a “Committed Christian”, former Archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey has offered his support to The Coalition for Marriage, a small, vague but vocal organisation which opposes equality in the marriage law for same sex and mixed sex couples. Writing in the Daily Mail last week, accompanied by chilling photograph of something which threatens the stability of our country (right), he explained about how marriage is the bedrock of society, but not because it increases the sum total of human happiness, brings families and communities together or because To love another person is to see the face of God.

No, of course not - it's because only certain people are forbidden from marrying the love of their life.

Throughout his article, Carey frequently refers to the general public as if it excludes both queer people and everyone else who supports marriage equality.  This got me riled.  Then it got me stewing. Now inevitably, a week later, I blog.

So to Carey's arguments:

1. Marriage is so very very old, you can't change anything about it.
"The honourable estate of matrimony precedes both the site and the church, and neither of these institutions have the right to redefine it in such a fundamental way."
Marriage has indeed been going on for a very long time, but is anything about it timeless? For most of history, marriage has been entirely informal or else formalised by a ritual particular to a small community. Legal marriages in England didn't require paperwork or a priest until the 18th century, after which point English romantics merely eloped to Gretna Green, Scotland being far less hung up on formality - up until 2006, two people could have married rights simply by having lived together, shared a surname and be treated as if married by their community.

Many marriages, throughout the world today as in our own history, are nothing like the traditional marriage that Lord Carey would recognise. Polygamy and polyandry aren't merely the far end of the slippery slope anti-egalitarians warn us about; they are also ancient traditions in various parts of the world. The practice of keeping a wife plus one or several concumbines is as commonplace throughout the Old Testament as it is in modern France. Various royal dynasties married brothers, sisters and the occasional rose bush.

Today, as throughout history, many men and women – but especially women – are forced into marriage entirely against their will and treated like property rather than willing partners. In some parts of the world today and in our own history, children are forced into marriage. Even in modern Britain, marriage is sometimes a form of sexual and domestic slavery, with defiance punished by imprisonment, violence and death.

Is all this a reason to chuck out marriage? Some think so. Does this defeat the idea that marriage has always been and thus must always be a willing, life long partnership between a man and a woman?  Definitely. Marriage has changed in far more dynamic ways that allowing people of the same gender to wed.  Treating men and women as equal parties within marriage strikes me as a far more radical change, which effected far greater numbers of people but failed to destroy the institution.

Meanwhile, within modern British culture, marriage has different meanings for different couples. I could speak to ten married couples I know and get ten different reasons for their getting married. These would include romantic reasons, pragmatic reasons around finance or immigration, religious or cultural reasons, reasons around family and children as well as marriage being a jolly good excuse for a party and a John Lewis gift list.

There's no way of enforcing any single ideal model of marriage. There's no way of enforcing even the fundamentals, which aren't, as the Coalition for Marriage would have it, about the contents of a couple's respective underwear, but things like mutual respect and love. But we know that most people enter into marriage because they believe it will make them and the people around them happy. Marriage equality merely provides the same opportunity to a greater number of people and their families.

So to the next argument:

2. Civil Partnership is Marriage by a different name so there's no need for change. 
“Civil partnerships were brought in to give same-sex couples  the rights that they said they  badly needed. These rights are  virtually identical to those of married couples.” 
If the language of marriage didn't matter, nobody would be trying to preserve that magic word for a certain group of people – the group Carey's coalition website describes as “the rest of us”.

For some people, the word marriage doesn't matter and for others, the word is highly problematic. I've known people who don't wish to get married because of the baggage that word carries with it. If it was completely opened up, I expect many thousands of same sex and mixed sex couples would opt to have a Civil Partnership rather than be married.

But out of all the same sex couples I know who have civil partnerships or are getting civil partnerships, the majority speak about marriage, about husbands and wives. Friends describe the great offence caused when they refer to their husband or wife and are corrected with, “Don't you mean Civil Partner?” People who prefer the terminology of “partner” have generally not got married. I really struggle to imagine someone introducing their spouse at a party with, “This is Rani, she's my Civil Partner.” It's an administrative term. It's a bit like introducing your adult child as “This is John, he's the Executor of my Will.”

3. Marriage Equality undermines Traditional Heterosexual Marriage. 

Although Carey doesn't really out-line why, the whole piece is supposed about how
"[Marriage Equality] threatens to fatally weaken what is still one of our country’s greatest strengths – the institution of marriage."
There are things which genuinely do undermine marriage. Mea culpa. I got married for all sorts of bad reasons, as well as misplaced love and way too much pragmatism. I talked about it as a piece of paper. When I blogged about it, I even posted a photo of Chamberlain waving his piece of paper. My marriage lasted only a few years longer than Chamberlain's peace, although, you know, I can't pretend my divorce was quite as involved as the 1939-45 conflict. He didn't have Legal Aid.

People who marry for money, for passports, for the meringue dress and the photo album, they undermine marriage. Celebrities and the occasional non-celebrity who seem to marry every casual boyfriend or girlfriend and divorce to marry someone new every few years undermine marriage. But those who really threaten the institution of marriage as most of us understand it? People who use other people in marriage, who force marriage on others, who use marriage to justify rape, violence and slavery. They exist in our culture. Those are the people we should all be crusading against.

Marriage equality promotes marriage. The desire that same sex couples have to get married demonstrates how highly the institution is regarded. When it becomes an institution that everyone has the opportunity to be part of, then it is bound to be regarded more highly. At the moment, it is tarnished for many mixed sex couples as a badge of straight privilege (which is, of course, the very thing some people wish to protect).

I don't know that marriage is the bedrock of society, but it brings people together, it brings families and social groups together. Weddings are lovely! They're not just fun, but they're deeply moving. I love weddings and I want more of my friends to be allowed to have them – I want to attend proper weddings in my friends' places of worship as well as registry offices and stately homes and the like. How is it that gay people can get married on a submarine and they can't get married in their own Church?

4. If we achieve Marriage Equality, people who are against it will not be able to express their views. 
 “We know what will happen, for we have already had a taste of it – it will encourage religious discrimination. A marriage registrar from Islington believed in traditional marriage, and was disciplined by her employers for it. The elderly owners of a B&B believed in traditional marriage, and were successfully sued for it. Numerous Roman Catholic adoption agencies believed in traditional marriage, and were closed down for it.” 
These slippery slopes are just everywhere you look, aren't they? A change in marriage law makes no difference to the existing anti-discrimination legislation, which has indeed proved problematic for people who want to exercise their prejudice in certain kinds of workplace.

What a change in law will do is make it less and less socially acceptable to air homophobic views. This is something that has been happening throughout my lifetime, but has steadily increased with every bit of legislation which has moved LGBT people towards a position of legal equality.

As soon as Civil Partnerships came into being, people who couldn't imagine how same sex couples could enter into something like marriage began to see that this was perfectly possible. People talk about the gay people in their lives more and with greater pride. Previously, a middle-aged conservative friend might refer to their son who has a (mumbled) boyfriend. But since she got to be mother-of-the-groom and buy a fancy hat, got to meet the boyfriend's family and they seemed so nice, and it was such a lovely day, such a moving ceremony and no small number of tears were shed, now, she has a son who lives with her husband. A wedding is one day of your life, but it is a day can change lives (it doesn't have to, some people's don't want that, but it can).

And when non-political straight people are prepared to refer casually about their gay family member's husband as a son-in-law, grandson-in-law, brother-in-law, uncle, stepfather or whatever, then it becomes much more difficult for people around them to use slurs, tell revolting jokes, talk about the gays taking over and similar nonsense. But that's not a freedom of speech issue. It's an advance in our civilisation.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Niblings & Siblings

An fuzzy ultrasound image of a fetus at approx. 12 weeks.
Can you tell what it is yet? No, me neither, but apparently this is a mass of tissue fast developing into a second niece or nephew, ready to depart the Mothership sometime in August.  Check out that brain symmetry! The fetus is obviously a genius.  Well, we do share about 25% of our DNA.

To be honest, it's all a bit weird for nephew Alexander. He is tremendously excited, having lobbied for a sibling over the years, but he'll be six in the summer and he is so very used to being the centre of everyone's attention. He is the only grandchild for both sets of grandparents and has many non-familial uncle and aunt figures who have no children of their own. He lives on the grounds of a boarding school full of older children who treat him as a mascot. He's expressed nothing negative about the new baby - except his fear that he or she may eat his Lego - but he's began to misbehave.

A toddler (Rosie) looking slightly anxious as she holds
a crying baby (me), circa. New Year 1981
So I made a book for Alex about what it means to be a big brother or sister, with photographs of my big sister and I and a rather romanticised account of our childhood together. I included radical gender politics such as
"The main difference between being a big brother like you or a big sister like your Mummy is that brothers and sisters wear different kinds of clothes."
illustrated with photographs of my sister in a ballgown and my sister dressed up as our male school music teacher (even Rosie can't remember what she was doing). My own phase of transvestism was far more prolonged. I wore bow-ties, all the time. Sometime I even wore a cravat.  But then what nine year old girl living in a suburban terrace doesn't experiment with that look? I think I thought I was James Bond.
A small girl (me) makes a face from
behind an older girl's shoulder.

I unearthed a great number of photographs which revealed a lot about both our relationship and the foundation of our different personalities. Rosemary is not a very serious person, but is demonstrably more sensible than I am, and is frequently posed in a sober fashion while I'm pulling a silly face or, more times than I care to admit, posing in a state of undress. I really did like to take my clothes off as a child. Well, Saville Row tailoring can so easily overheat one.

The book naturally omitted the bitter feud between my sister and I which started with a torn poster of Kylie Minogue in1989 and continued unabated for the next six or seven years. Of course, I didn't tear the poster. Why would I? She threatened to dismember my panda unless I confessed.

Illness brought about our eventual entente. In the book I wrote
"When I was almost grown up, I got sick and never got better. Your Mummy helped to look after me. She took messages to my friends and teachers at school.
"Although I couldn't walk properly, I didn't want to use a wheelchair in case people stared at me. Your Mummy encouraged me to use a wheelchair and pushed me in it so that I could go out and have fun again. If people stared at me, your Mummy stared back."
Two small girls and their father with a small canon.
Rosie came through for me, after I got sick, while my folks were still floundering. We'd squabbled throughout our teenage years up to that point, but after that point we rarely argued (the notable exception being one occasion where she made a very hurtful remark and I promptly poured a glass of water over her head). Rosie invited me to spend the weekend with her at university in Southampton and suggested I borrow a wheelchair from somewhere so that she could take me Christmas shopping. I was very nervous but reassured that I wouldn't encounter anybody I knew, or anyone I'd have to meet again. My parents continued to flounder somewhat, until they came to pick me up and the four of us went for a walk in the park together. After that they were sold that a wheelchair was not like a coffin, a symbol of lost hope, something you never got out of, once you got in.

Two teenage girls and their father with a canon on the
ramparts of a fort or castle somewhere.
Having found the above picture of us playing with a canon, I wrote on the next page
"Big brothers and sisters stand up for their little brothers and sisters. If anyone is unkind to me, your Mummy fires a canon ball at them." 
And lo and behold, as I made my way through the photos of a decade later, I found this, another of Rosie lighting an imaginary fuse.  My sister is not only prepared to fire a canon, it's something of a habit with her. So watch out.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Stephen's ESA Migration Experience

Several of our friends and contacts are being migrated from Incapacity Benefits to the dreaded Employment & Support Allowance at the moment and a lot of people are anxious. Stephen has been through this and decided to share his experience in case it is helpful for people facing the same process.

 Cross-posted at Single Lens Reflections

Link to the MP3 for download


Form filling is one of the most destructive parts of life as a disabled person. In order to fill in a form properly, you have to look at your life and pour your heart out onto paper, listing all the ways you don't measure up, only for that to be judged by an annonymous force of terror (who probably wears black and cackles all the time). I'm recording this to share my experiences and hopefully to de-mystify the process. Deborah, also known as the Goldfish, helped me with all the stages of my transfer to ESA from Incapacity Benefit, and it is she who has come up with what we think are the four most useful points to pass on to other people. She's cleverer than I, so I'm going along with it all. OK, so starting at the beginning.

The first point is that we were ready for an epic saga with dark nights and long battles. Frankly, I thought ESA would turn into a bureaucratic version of the Lord of the Rings. People are being turned down all the time. When you see this, and people being placed in the Work Group when that's inappropriate, it's hard not to imagine yourself in that position. This is made worse when the condition from which you suffer is one which is invisible or subjective or both. I have ME and this causes me extreme chronic pain, fatigue, neurological symptoms etc. Aside from looking a wreck, there are no tests that can be done to prove or disprove this. And, indeed, there are people with ME who have different, less severe symptoms and whom recover from it in a relatively short space of time. There are many conditions which put people in the same boat.

Meanwhile, because of the particular luxury yacht in which we sail, we are often people who live quietly at home and who only deal with the medical profession when something new or interesting occurs. I saw a pediatrician for many years, but since I turned eighteen, I've had very little to do with doctors at all. As such, I don't have the backup of a team of specialist doctors who understand every aspect of my health, my lifestyle or my abilities (or lack thereof).

So you can see why I was in a bit of a state. But I can tell you now that I was very lucky. I have been placed in the Support Group, and I didn't even have an interview. This was the very best case scenario, and I couldn't have dreamed of it happening. So that's a positive point that others facing this transition should take comfort in; I may be more ill than many people on incapacity benefits, but from past experience and the experiences of others, Deborah and I considered me vulnerable to being turned down and messed about with. Yet none of my fears were realised.

You'd think, then, having been put in the support group without interview, that all the communication I had with ATOS would have been stress free and easy. Alas this was not the case and given that lots of people are worried about the transition, you should be warned about this.

The first telephone communication I had (to change the phone number on which they'd contact me) was very easy and pleasant. The second phone call (to check I knew what was going to happen) was likewise pleasant. However, it was at this point that I raised the issue of face to face assessment. I knew I'd not be able to travel to the assessment venue and so wanted to arrange for a home visit where I could be at my best and have others present to support me (something which I'd had previously). I was told that this would be no problem and that I should just write on my form that this would be necessary and they'd take it from there. So the form came and we took our time. It was posted off and seemed to take an age to get any response. I began to worry in case it had not got to them. Deborah even phoned to ask if they'd recieved it, but they couldn't tell us anything other than it might take a while.

Finally I heard back from them, but this came in the form of a phone call to arrange a face to face interview despite my having specifically said that this wasn't possible in my form. "Oh, no problem," says the ATOS chap on the phone "You just have to make an appointment for the interview anyway and get your GP to fax a letter in the next few weeks to say you won't be able to make it. Then we can set about making the arrangements for a home visit." As you can imagine, this was rather a shock. It was impossible to arrange an phone appointment with my GP in time, so I had to send a letter asking the doctor to write a letter to ATOS and then fax it to them. Given that my GP only works a few days each week, I had to do this straight away in order for there to be any hope she could do it. I simply wasn't well enough to write a letter that day, so Deborah had to rattle one off there and then, a feat which cost her the rest of the day.

Of course, the implication was that if I couldn't get my GP to write this letter, I would lose the benefit for failing to attend the interview.

My next communication from ATOS was a confirmation of my appointment at the interview venue. It even included a helpful print off of the public transport journey to the venue (90 minutes including 35 minutes of walking). That didn't help stress levels. The final communication came, however, in the form of a phone call to say that they had recieved a letter from my GP (which I presumed to be the confirmation that I wasn't able to attend the interview, but which turned out to be the original confirmation that the information I provided with my ESA form was correct and that I had ME and was in as decrepit a state as I'd declared). Because of this, they'd decided to move me straight into the Support Group and that was that.

What's the point of this saga? Well, whatever position you're in, you're likely to recieve communications which suggest that no one believes you're ill. To be given a route with 35 minutes walk when I'd written in my form that I couldn't walk more than 20 yards? To seemingly ignore my request for a home visit? It seemed a personal attack. In reality, though, it's just a terribly designed system that treats people as guilty at a base level. 

My final two points are advise with the actual form filling. Firstly, the form isn't helpful. Impairments are broken down into either physical and sensory or intellectual and emotional. There is no real place for the problems surrounding fatigue, cognative dysfunction etc. It is up to you, therefore, to work those issues into the answers you provide in the text boxes. We took a long time formulating answers, and did the whole thing on the computer (finally printing the answers and sticking them in, in a process not disimmilar to a primary school project book. If only we'd been able to use glitter...). Anyway, the point is that we had to be careful to write out these detailed answers so people can understand how damaging these symptoms are and how they render work impossible. We believe that fatigue and cognitive dysfunction is a major incapacitating factor for almost everyone with a chronic condition, be that physical, mental or both. So it's extremely important you not let it get lost out in a form which seems not to have a section for it.

Secondly, the law is very clear that in order to be able to do something, whatever that something may be (walk up stairs, use a telephone, discuss an issue with a stranger, etc), you need to be able to do it "reliably, repeatedly and safely". Can you answer the phone and talk to a stranger? Maybe you can. Can you answer the phone and talk to a stranger several times over, as you might have to if you were working as, say, a receptionist or someone working on a call centre? Well, that's a very different proposition. The form does not even hint at the importance of "reliably, repeatedly and safely" at any point. That means that you have to make it obvious in your answers. I can make a phone call. However, I have to be very careful when I do. I have to set aside energy. I have to limit the time on the phone (or else get a headache and neck/shoulder/arm pain) and if it goes on too long I'm likely to not make much sense. I cannot make several phone calls in any given day, or even any given week. If I had to make a phone call this afternoon, or any afternoon when I've used the day's energy on something else, it could not be done.

You must explain always thinking 'if I were in a job, in what way would this symptom be an issue'.  Spell it out and be brave.

So if you are, or will soon be, dealing with the ESA quest, remember to keep your sword sharp and your shield high. And if possible, keep hope in your heart. I wish I'd tried harder to heed that advice, but luckily I had Deborah to keep me safe and hopeful. But I'm not sharing her.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Heart-Shaped Plectrum

(Click the CC button for Closed Captions).

I wanted to write a blog post about ukuleles, so Stephen and I spoke about what photographs we could take to accompany the post - ukuleles being very beautiful instruments.  This conversation evolved into a great deal of messing about and all of a sudden (many weeks later) we had produced a music video. That's my story and I'm sticking to it.

I'm still going to publish the ukulele post, but for your information, the first ukulele is a concert uke, the second is a soprano we made ourselves in the summer of 2010 from a kit like this and the third is a tenor.

The great picture of the rock-hopper penguins is by Liam Quinn.

Heart-Shaped Ukuelele Plectrums can be bought from this eBay shop.

Stephen says: Love's a funny thing. It can drive you to do all manner of strange things.

 I think the thing about true love, though, is that once you've done that thing (even if it's taken weeks) and you've had time to look back at it and understand the mind-boggling oddness of it all, you still feel proud. It still warms your heart and gives you a sense of completeness.

That said, if you haven't yet made your peace with the infinite, then I suggest you think twice before pressing play.

So, I hope that whoever you are, and whatever it is that you love (a special person, pet, food-stuff, view, group of people, artwork etc), that you spend the day cuddled up with a comfortable... comforting... sense of the oddness of all things and the truly humanising effect of affection.