Photography by Danielle St. Laurent
On a fresh and sparkling April morning I cycled to Borough Hall in Brooklyn, marveling at the blossom and the soft, tender light. It was that time of year, when you no longer steel yourself to battle the cold. Cycling through Cobble Hill, I did a brief double-take at the sight of three English cops in their distinctive domed helmets. What on earth were they doing here? They had set up an incident desk in the street and appeared to be questioning the entire neighborhood—English toughs and corner grocers from central casting. It took me a while to spot the location vans, and by then I’d worked out I was intruding on a TV shoot for Elementary, the modern-day Sherlock Holmes adaptation on CBS. On neighboring Court Street, I nearly ran into a red double-decker bus, destination Piccadilly Circus.
So by the time I got to Borough Hall to meet my boyfriend, London was on my mind. It was, after all, the same day as Margaret Thatcher’s funeral, and that bus to Piccadilly took me back to 1990, the twilight of Thatcher’s era, when the London landmark was the site of a mass kiss-in organized by OutRage!, a gay advocacy group fronted by the charismatic Peter Tatchell. They were protesting arrests of gay men for kissing in public, and I remember looking at those images of lip-locked couples under Piccadilly’s famous statue of Anteros (the Greek god of requited love) and being titillated and inspired. It’s bracing to remember now just how extremely fringe it felt to be gay in the ’80s, that awkward tango between surreptitiousness and defiance.
Thatcher was more complicated than some people claim -- she favored legal abortion, and was among the few Conservative MPs to vote to decriminalize homosexuality in 1967 -- but it was also her government that introduced the notorious Section 28, banning local councils from promoting the “acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship.”
Section 28 was a foolish piece of legislation, but one that had an unintended consequence. Much the same way that Reagan’s silence on HIV/AIDS united gay men and women here, so Section 28 gave momentum to gay activists in Britain. It also prompted Sir Ian McKellen to come out and join the founders of Stonewall -- now the largest gay equality organization in Europe. It is not, I think, a stretch to suggest that Section 28 hastened the revolution that subsequently undid nearly all the legislation that sought to oppress and stigmatize gay men and lesbians. It has been eight years since gay civil unions were legalized in England, but in February, Britain’s parliament voted overwhelming in favor of a bill, introduced by Thatcher’s own party, to legalize same-sex marriage. Republicans in the U.S. have been slower to come around, but Democrats have not. In April, the number of those backing marriage equality in the Senate passed 50 percent, progress that the Human Rights Campaign describes as a “tidal wave.”
And so to Borough Hall that morning, where my boyfriend and I duly found our way to the second floor and joined the line to be registered as domestic partners. It was not marriage (although we could get married under local law), but it was a step in that direction. It may not rank among the most romantic experiences in my life, and yet for that very reason it was oddly magical. Standing with those other couples -- black, white, Hasidic Jews -- I had the immense satisfaction of realizing that the great slow bureaucracy of society was at last accommodating us, too. Our relationship was an administrative procedure, to be documented and certified with an actual stamp by an actual clerk (who smiled).
As the certificate was pushed through the slot in the window, I thought briefly of Thatcher’s funeral, and of those heady days in the late ’80s when we were angry and united and excited all at once. I had an overwhelming wish to hop on that red bus idling on Court Street and take it all the way to Piccadilly Circus and join the ghosts of those kissing couples. Of course, it was only a pretend London bus -- but our certificate was real.