On 29 May, I spoke at a debate in London on gay marriage, organised by the British Humanist Association and Catholic Voices. My speech is published below.

Gay-marriage activists often compare themselves to the civil-rights campaigners of 1960s America. They say that just as those campaigners fought for equality in a segregated America, so we are now fighting for equality in segregated registry offices.

Yet the more they make this comparison, the more they unwittingly draw attention to the vast differences between these two movements.

The greatest difference is between the agony suffered by those civil-rights campaigners compared with the celebrity and adulation enjoyed by gay-marriage activists today.

In order for gay marriage to become one of the most celebrated issues of our time, embraced by everyone from David Cameron to The Times to Goldman Sachs, nobody had to fight on the streets; nobody had to organise long and bitter boycotts of public institutions; nobody was water-cannoned by the authorities, attacked by police dogs, burnt out of their homes.

Where civil-rights campaigners had to go through all those things and more for their cause to be taken seriously, gay-marriage campaigners just had to say “We want to get married”, and, hey presto, the vast bulk of the political and media class said “Yes! We agree! This is the most pressing equality issue of our time!”

Now, I’m not saying that in order for a political movement to be taken seriously, its members must first get beaten up or bitten by dogs.

But I do think the remarkable ease with which gay marriage has moved up the political agenda is very revealing. What it shows is that this is an issue which the political elite feels very comfortable with, in fact which the political elite finds very useful. And that is because, for all the gay-marriage activists’ rather desperate claims to be like the oppressed blacks of the past, this is in fact a very elitist campaign. It is underpinned by an aloof and disdainful political outlook.

There are three areas in which the gay-marriage issue has more in common with the modern-day politics of elitism than it does with olden-day civil-rights campaigning. The first is in its snobbery towards vast sections of society; the second is in its intolerance of dissent; and the third is in its indifference to the lives and experiences of everyday people.

Firstly, its snobbery. Gay-marriage supporters have a real tendency to look upon their critics, not as people who might be won over, but as backward, uneducated creatures, whose minds have possibly been warped by religion.

Opponents of gay marriage are frequently said to be suffering from “homophobia”, which, as one gay writer recently reminded us, is a “recognised mental illness”. The intensity of campaigners’ loathing for those on the “wrong side” could really be seen following the referendum in North Carolina. Those who voted against gay marriage were referred to by supporters of gay marriage as “backward”, “plain ignorant”, even as “knuckle draggers”.

This verbal abuse, so unbecoming of supposedly liberal campaigners, shows the extent to which gay marriage has been turned into a marker of respectability. Expressing support for gay marriage has become a key way of distinguishing yourself from the unenlightened mob. This is one of the main reasons it is so attractive to the political elite – it allows them, everyone from discredited investment banks to fusty old conservative newspapers, to advertise their moral credentials by contrasting themselves with the ignorant homophobes at large in society.

Secondly, there is the intolerance of dissent. If gay marriage really is a civil-rightsy, freedom-orientated issue, then why are so many of its supporters so hostile to open debate?

One of the Guardian newspaper’s supporters of gay marriage has declared: “There are some subjects that should be discussed in shades of grey, with acknowledgement of cultural differences… Same-sex marriage is not one of them. There is a right answer.”

In other words, gay marriage is a uniquely black-and-white issue on which no “cultural differences” of opinion can be tolerated. So it isn’t surprising that when anyone does put forward an alternative view, they tend to be shot down in flames. John Sentamu recently wrote a critique of gay marriage. I didn’t agree with a lot of what he said, but it was clear he had considered the issues in a careful, intelligent way. And yet in discussion boards he was branded “utterly sickening”, “poisonous”, “cold-hearted” and a “figurehead of a grossly hypocritical global death cult”.

There is an extraordinary moral pressure to conform on this issue. That is why Nick Clegg is outraged that MPs are being allowed to vote with their conscience on gay marriage, because he, like many others, doesn’t think we should be allowed to exercise our free consciences on this issue that has no “shades of grey”.

This hostility to dissent also speaks to the elitism of the gay-marriage issue. What the political class and various political cliques love about gay marriage is the sense of belonging to a club, a decent, moral, enlightened club which has come to the “right answer” on gay marriage. And how does a club keep itself going; how does a club forge its identity? By attacking what it considers to be outsiders, deviants, those who dare to cleave to something “culturally different”.

And thirdly there’s the indifference to ordinary people’s experiences. We often hear that gay marriage is about elevating gay relationships – but it is far more obviously a denigration of traditional marriages.

You can see this most clearly in the government’s proposal to airbrush certain words from official documentation: words like husband, wife, father, mother. Yesterday we learned that the NHS is excising the word “father” from a policy document, so as to not offend same-sex couples. But these words have profound meaning for millions of people. They are longstanding cultural and social identities that people have invested entire lifetimes in. What message do we send to mums, dads, husbands and wives when, Orwellian style, we cavalierly cast aside their titles?

The gay-marriage issue is giving the state extraordinary leeway to interfere in married and family life, which have traditionally been considered no-go zones. Yes, the state brokers marriage, but it does not define its meaning and its purpose – that is a social, communal, cultural creation. Gay marriage is allowing the state to redefine and rename our relationships, to flatten out and homogenise every human relationship and turn us all into “partners” – that soulless word which is never used by normal people to describe their relationships, only by cut-off bureaucrats.

What we have in the gay-marriage issue is elitism disguised as equality. Strip away the self-flattering civil-rights garb, and you can clearly see a top-down campaign which demands conformism, which demonises cultural difference, and which invites the state further into people’s private lives.

The above is a speech I gave in London on 29 May 2012.