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Changing times

With new legislation paving the way for gay marriages to be officially recognised, Chris Mahony asks physiotherapy staff about the implications.

An attempt by a group of Conservative   MPs and others to halt the progress of the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill failed on 21 May. The group’s proposed amendment was rejected by 375 votes to 70.

In February, nearly half of all Conservative MPs voted against allowing gay people to marry during the bill’s first reading and further skirmishes are expected when the bill reaches the House of Lords.

Such responses might suggest that prejudice and discrimination against lesbians, gay men and bisexuals are still prevalent, despite the undoubted progress made over the last 15 years – including parliament’s approval of civil partnerships in 2004.

The CSP has not taken a formal position on the legislation but it is a member of the TUC which has published a position paper on the bill approved by its relevant equality committee.

The paper is largely supportive of the bill, stating that equalising access to any service or institution, such as marriage, is important.

It says that creating equal marriage rights for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people will help challenge continuing homophobia in society.

However the paper does oppose specific measures or omissions in the bill, particularly the ban on such marriages within the Church of England and the failure to equalise occupational pension rights – something the TUC recognises affects only a small number of people.

Implications for wedding planners

CSP national equalities officer Saraka Keating says that while the latter point only affects relatively few people, it is important nevertheless.

‘We believe in equality of pay,’ she says. ‘Pensions are deferred pay so the CSP is going to support anything that brings about equality for all workers regardless of sexual orientation.’

Given that pension survivor rights were largely addressed in the 2004 legislation, along with issues such as next-of-kin status, is the passage of the current legislation likely to result in boom times for wedding planners?

Not if the two lesbian physios who spoke to Frontline are representative of those already in civil partnerships.

Although neither wished to be named, each seemed perfectly content with the civil status of their relationship – and did not see that marriage would represent any sort of meaningful upgrade.

Margaret, who has been in a civil partnership for three years and has two children, said: ‘I see no need to go down the marriage side of things.

The civil partnership was more important from the general point of view because it gave us the same rights as other people.’

She says that neither she nor her partner are religious and felt no need for a traditional church ceremony.

Guess who’s not coming to dinner?

Joan, who has been in a civil partnership with her partner - also a physiotherapist - for two years, also sees little attraction in holding a second ceremony.

‘There were quite a few things that made it important for us to have a civil partnership two years ago, including the fact that we have a daughter who is now 15 months old. We wanted certainty around the legal next-of-kin status, for example.

I feel that as long as those rights are acknowledged then that is enough for us.

‘We have had a big bash with our family and friends already. I’m not particularly interested in politics so I have not even thought much about the marriage bill.’

The enticement of religious endorsement is hardly likely to be a factor for Joan. Raised a Catholic, she says: ‘The Catholic Church and homosexuality do not have a great relationship.’

What then of the power of a marriage to send a signal of equality to colleagues and others?

A Frontline article, titled ‘Taking homophobia seriously’, on homophobia in physiotherapists’ workplaces last year encouraged nine physiotherapists to contact the CSP website with examples of what most referred to as ‘subtle’ discrimination or bullying.

A typical comment was: ‘The prejudice is subtle – everyone else can talk about their relationships but when I do, people look uncomfortable and change the subject.’

Another said: ‘I’m not invited to the dinners [or] gatherings with colleagues which are privileged for heterosexual couple so they can talk about “normal” things like the children [and] family holidays.’

Rachael Machin, convenor of the CSP’s LGBT Network, says that as someone who was in a heterosexual relationship for some time she senses what amounts to unofficial censorship in discussing personal matters at work since she recognised she was a lesbian a decade ago.

‘A straight person will have no hesitation in talking about both the good things – what they and their partner did at the weekend – and relationship difficulties. That is different for gay people as there is still prejudice there.’

Discrimination not always overt

Ms Machin continues: ‘The problem is when homophobia is very subtle – I have suffered from that when a colleague would do little things like making a cup of tea for everyone in the team except me.

People know that in the NHS you can’t make openly homophobic comments.’

However the two other physiotherapists we talked to for this article have not encountered hostility: to the extent in Joan’s case that many of her and her physiotherapist partner’s colleagues made a four-hour journey to attend her civil partnership ceremony.

‘We get invited out by colleagues all the time but I am not sure if we have just been lucky,’ she says.

With Ms Keating noting that civil partnerships have made a difference to how gay people are seen, including in the workplace, it seems that the times are going to carry on changing.

However, there’s no legislating for individual attitudes. fl

To see the ‘Taking homophobia seriously’ article (15 February 2012), visit: www.csp.org.uk/frontline/article/taking-homophobia-seriously

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