Reader, he married him

By Russell Hargrave 28 March 2014

From midnight tonight, gay people can get married. For politicians keen to burnish their modern credentials, it’s a big day. And for some LGBT couples it is the big day, as they grab the chance to head down the aisle in the very wee small hours.

It makes for some great stories, naturally, and reporters are having a field day. Last week the Guardian quoted John Coffey, one of many midnight celebrants, who cheerfully explained how ‘the guest list has swollen to accommodate huge media interest’.

So, to ask some very NPC-ish questions, what role was played in this by charities, campaigners and funders?

To start, we need to go back in time a bit. Equal marriage is the big story today, but it builds on roughly fifteen years of impressive progress. The political commentator, Sunny Hundal, points out that LGBT rights campaigners have far outperformed their counterparts in just about every other area of social justice.

Stonewall, the UK’s leading gay rights charity, plays an intriguing role here. Stonewall is widely perceived to have been slow out of the blocks on the fight for equal marriage, but can point to a very successful campaigning record in years gone by. Stonewall was the largest LGBT campaigning organisation at a time of substantial changes in government policy. Equal age of consent was enshrined in law in 2000. Civil partnerships were legalised in 2004. The right to workplace protection for LGBT staff was secured in 2010, followed later by equality in access to services. Given the generally glacial pace of legislative change, this is astonishing stuff.

One explanation for this success may lie in the way Stonewall’s work is funded. According to recent financial figures, the majority of its income comes from individual donations, events, sponsorship and membership fees. This says something about its strength as a brand, but also about the way it can go about its work. Because the fact that most of its income therefore falls under the banner of unrestricted cash affords greater freedom when it comes to shifting resources around—into new areas of campaigning and advocacy, for example.

If philanthropists decide that flexibility is key to advancing gay rights, there is another option available. They might bypass charities and fund political causes and individuals more directly. The Labour Party-affiliated Chris Smith List already leads the way in the UK: donors are invited to finance the election campaigns of gay parliamentary candidates to boost LGBT representation in Westminster (it tripled its initial funding target). In the US, the Victory Fund PAC boasts of its success in converting donated funds into elected LGBT politicians.

There are risks, of course. Investing in individuals isn’t the same as investing in a cause, even if funders hope that the outcome will be the same. And even the best-resourced and best-intentioned election campaign can fall flat, subject to all manner of external forces.

Not that any of this will occupy the minds of the happy couples tonight. The cameras will click and confetti will fall. Somewhere, though, I’d guess that philanthropists and campaigners will already be thinking ahead.