During the nineties I spent several summers working in a luxury hotel on the edge of the Lake District. Compared to the jobs I’d had before (service station; cheap, pack-em-in hotel; silver service for boozed-up businessmen) it was idyllic. I’d drive over early in the morning to witness the sun rising over Ullswater. I’d watch the reflection in the shimmering waters, so immersed in self-conscious poetic musings that I’d almost crash the Mini Metro. Then I’d pull over by the side of the road, have a fag (since I still wasn’t allowed them at home), and continue on my way, anticipating a peaceful morning of setting up the breakfast room and serving a tiny number of high-paying guests, before going upstairs to hoover and polish a handful of plush bedrooms.
There were high points, such as serving breakfast to Jarvis Cocker, and to Robert Powell (who played the lead role in the 1977 film Jesus of Nazareth, meaning I can legitimately say I’ve served tea and toast to Jesus). There were low points, such serving porridge to the portly man in Room 11, who took room service in his underpants, and winked disconcertingly at the end of every sentence. There were simply confusing points, such as dealing with a couple who both had alzheimer’s and had no idea where they were, but seemed to be having such a wonderful time together you had no idea whether to feel sad for them or not. And then there were simply shameful points, the worst of which was making a gay couple feel unwelcome in a hotel they’d paid a fortune to stay in.
Every morning we’d go into their room and find the twin beds pushed together, with the duvet covers arranged horizontally, one above the over, so that each covered both beds at once. And every morning the other chambermaid and I would push the beds apart, make up each separately and push a bedside table in between them, as if to keep them permanently divided. Every night the men would return and dutifully rearrange the room they were paying hundreds to occupy, push the beds back together again and adjust the bedding so that they could lie together beneath the same covering. They never said a word about it. I never said a word about it, despite the pitiful shred of decency that at least made me wonder whether this was right. It was just the way we did things. I look back and I feel appalled at myself, and at an environment in which a couple could be so beaten down by discrimination that they wouldn’t complain, not even in a situation where they had the money and, supposedly, the power. We would not have treated a heterosexual couple in the same way. I know this because occasionally heterosexual couples stayed in twin rooms and we had no issues with any rearrangement of the beds. We’d offer to help them with it. But things were different for same-sex couples. Or rather, non-couples. The message to them was clear: you pretend you’re no more than friends and we’ll deign to take your money. Your relationship is unworthy of an establishment such as ours.
Writing all this I feel incredibly ashamed. I’ll regale people with the “serving toast to Jesus” story, but I tend to forget the “treating fellow human beings like shit” anecdote. The thing that reminded me is this piece by John Sentamu in the Guardian. It’s the same old, same old about how gay marriage isn’t necessary because we have civil partnerships, and how, actually, allowing gay couples to marry would damage marriage, which is “built around the complementarity of the sexes”:
Defining marriage as between a man and a woman is not discriminatory against same-sex couples. What I am pressing for is a kind of social pluralism that does not degenerate into a fancy-free individualism.
Sentamu doesn’t bother to tell us what “the complimentarity of the sexes” actually offers or achieves. Presumably it’s something to do with childbearing, in spite of the fact that heterosexual couples can marry regardless of whether they are fertile, have any intention of having children or are still within childbearing age. Yet even if we could regulate marriage law to exclude the unforgivably barren, it is unclear why we’d want to. And then there’s the fact that gay couples can have children with others, or adopt. If all this sounds a bit muddled, it’s because I’m genuinely confused. What is the value of this “between a man and a woman” bollocks? What is this special thing for which we need a special word? As a woman in a relationship with a man, I don’t see this “complementarity”, I don’t recognise it and I don’t want it. Yet I’m still allowed to get married and same-sex couples aren’t. Once again, their relationship is unworthy of an establishment such as ours.
Sentamu recognises that being denied access to the same rights as others (or, to use the proper, gay-friendly terminology, access to “fancy-free individualism”) will make some gay people sad :(. But hey, it’s complicated:
If it was a question of justice, what injustice would result from not turning civil partners into married couples? I suggest: no injustice.
Well, John, I suggest: a great deal of injustice, in addition to a great deal of pain. Because I could look back on one summer in 1994 and claim that what it all came down to was the same pair of beds, the same pair of duvet covers, the same room. Everything was the same. The only thing that was different was the positioning on the floor. And what difference does that make, really? None at all? I think it makes a lot of difference. It’s a question of love, respect and the humane treatment of others. John Sentamu may not be able to see it, and as a naive, selfish nineteen-year-old, neither could I. But surely all of us have to grow up at some point and recognise the importance of our words and actions. It’s not just a label, or the shifting of a bedside table. It’s a gesture that can make all the difference in the world.