When British Prime Minister David Cameron recently gave his keynote speech at the Conservative Party conference in Manchester, he made the case for gay marriage in the United Kingdom. This was newsworthy because members of Cameron's Conservative Party consistently voted against Tony Blair's Labour government on issues like the repeal of Section 28 (a "don't say 'gay'" rule for schools), an equal age of consent and the introduction of civil partnerships.
Happily the leaders of all three of Britain's main political parties have now come out in favour of gay marriage. With civil partnerships already granting virtually every legal protection afforded by marriage, a recent compromise on the ban on gays donating blood, and gay men and women lawfully serving in the British armed forces since 1999, Britain is undoubtedly a nirvana of gay equality -- so much so that Stonewall, Britain's pre-eminent gay lobby group, announced on 1 September that it would now begin lobbying internationally, a move that surely implies its work at home is done. What is there possibly left for British equality campaigners to fight for? Well, let me tell you.
One day I want to be a knight. Not the kind in shining armour that rides on his white steed to the tallest tower in the castle and rescues the fair maiden -- I see myself more in the role of the fair maiden, if anything -- but a modern knight like Sir Mick Jagger, Sir Paul McCartney, Sir Sean Connery, Sir Anthony Hopkins or Sir Michael Caine.
Knighthoods are national honors in Britain, bestowed upon individuals who have served their communities, professions or country at the highest level. In spite of the above examples, being a famous actor or musician is not a prerequisite for receiving a knighthood. American equivalents might be said to include the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Congressional Gold Medal. All involve the award of a medal. A knighthood additionally means you can use the prefix 'Sir' before your name.
Titles in Britain, a constitutional monarchy, are part of our history. In the past earldoms, dukedoms and the like were divvied out by kings for raising armies and smiting his enemies. Or if he wanted to marry you daughter. Or just because he liked you. Alas, over the years the hereditary nature of such titles and the seemingly compulsive disposition for inbreeding among titled families has done a lot to damage the stock. Modern-day knighthoods, however, are not passed on to children and, as such, represent recognition for an exceptional life's work.
In keeping with the titles of old, however, they also benefit your spouse. Sir Sean Connery's wife Micheline Roquebrune is entitled to call herself Lady Connery because he has been knighted. Likewise, Sir Michael Caine's wife Shakira Baksh can go by Lady Caine. It's all jolly nice and very high-tea-and-cucumber-sandwiches, unless, of course, you happen to be gay. Rock legend Sir Elton John, actors Sir Ian McKellen and Sir Derek Jacobi and impresario Sir Cameron Mackintosh are four examples of gay knights.
Elton John married his long-time partner, filmmaker David Furnish, on 21 December 2005, the first day civil partnerships could take place in England. The ceremony occurred in Windsor Guildhall, the same place Prince Charles married Camilla Parker-Bowles. While Camilla, having married a prince, went on to be titled Duchess of Cornwall, David Furnish, who married Sir Elton John, remains plain old Mr David Furnish. Unkind souls referred to him as Lady John, but the fact is that when the British government introduced civil partnerships, they failed to make provision for spousal titles. Sir Derek Jacobi's civil partner Richard Clifford is similarly disadvantaged.
Does it matter? Possibly not, but the inequality isn't limited to gay knights. It also extends to our handful of remaining hereditary titles. What if Prince Harry turned out to be gay and married a hypothetical male lover? Existing protocol couldn't cope with such an event. America seemed outraged, or at least confused, when Kate Middleton failed to become a princess upon marrying Prince William, but at least she became Duchess of Cambridge. As it stands, a would-be civil partner of Prince Harry's would get nothing. Talk about taking the fairy out of fairytale ending.
One solution would be to end all honorific spousal titles. That kind of argument appeals strongly to meritocrats, socialists and British republicans alike, but in contemplating it as a solution, I have a nagging feeling Britain would be throwing away part of its heritage in the name of political correctness.
Another solution would be to keep the medals and dispense with the titles. This was effectively what was proposed by a relatively recent review of the British honours system, but it amounted to replacing an understood and recognised reward system that has existed since 1348 with something no one has ever heard of. You can't just replace it with certificates and gold stars.
No, in my view the partners of gay knights and even princes need equivalent titles to their female counterparts, and it's time we worked out what they should be. It's a peculiarly British problem, but one I know the gay rights groups in Britain are well equipped to tackle, solve and then lobby for. In my view they should get on to it right away. In the meantime I shall continue to practice my curtsying.
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