THE HOUSE of Commons vote in favour of same-sex marriage on Tuesday 5th February was a landmark for equality, but it’s not the end of the journey – As Liverpool prepares to host the UK’s first National Gay Wedding Show next month, this is my personal response to the marriage equality debate, written for the March issue of Seen magazine, for Merseyside’s LGBT community.
Five years ago my partner and I had our first date. Little did we know that we would make the news in May 2012 as the first couple in the UK to register a civil partnership in a place of worship.
Recently we found ourselves in the news again, commenting on plans to allow same-sex couples to marry and to permit churches to ‘opt in’ to offering marriage services for same-sex couples within two years.
While some countries, like Canada and Spain, went straight for marriage equality, others like the UK and Ireland introduced something similar, but not quite, mainly due to some religious groups’ resistance to recognising heterosexual and same-sex couples in the same way.
Civil Partnerships became law in the UK in 2005. The Government announced plans in 2011 to enable same-sex couples to marry before the General Election in May 2015, but only civil and not religious marriages. Since then the pace of change has been surprisingly fast.
In March 2011 the Government consulted on proposals to enable faith groups to host civil partnership registrations. In December 2011, new legislation enabled civil partnership registration on religious premises where religious organisations permit this, and the premises are licensed. The Schedule of Civil Partnership must be signed separately from any religious service in a room with no religious imagery. Religious organisations are not obliged to host civil partnership registrations if they do not wish to, but some faith groups, including the Quakers, Metropolitan Community Church, Liberal Jews, the United Reformed Church and Unitarians do.
We had chosen Ullet Road Unitarian Church for a blessing after our civil partnership at the register office in St George’s Hall. When the law changed, it became possible to register our partnership and have our blessing in the same place, if the church could get licensed in time. It was a close call – the minister did not receive the license until just days before our service!
The Government launched another consultation in March 2012, on proposals to enable civil marriage for same-sex couples. The consultation received the biggest ever response, from more than 228,000 individuals and organisations. 53% agreed that all couples, regardless of gender, should be able to have a civil marriage.
Some opponents argue that only a ‘vocal minority’ of gay people want to marry. But not all straight couples wish to marry, and that’s doesn’t mean none should. The consultation, published in December 2012, showed 99% of lesbian or gay people and 96% of trans people were in favour.
But the Government’s recommendations went further, as the consultation showed that 63% agreed to making marriage ceremonies available to same-sex couples. The Anglican and Catholic Churches expressed concerns that they would be obliged to conduct same-sex marriages or risk legal challenge if they do not. But churches already reserve the right not to marry someone who is divorced, and there has been no legal challenge on this issue. In the consultation, 72% of Christians were in favour and other religious organisations asked to be allowed to solemnise same-sex marriages.
The Marriage (Same-Sex Couples) Bill, published in January, will allow same-sex civil marriage ceremonies, and for religious organisations to ‘opt in’, without obligation. It will remain unlawful for an individual place of worship to marry same-sex couples without the agreement of its governing body. For the Church of England, this means no minister could conduct a service until the Church’s governing body, the General Synod, accepts it, which is unlikely any time soon.
Some also argue that gay people are more likely to have short-term relationships, or be promiscuous. This ignores the many couples who have been together for years and now seek the social and legal affirmation of marriage. Meanwhile straight people, whose relationships receive more universal support, are also promiscuous and unfaithful, and divorce rates are increasing.
Some oppose ‘redefining’ marriage. But marriage is not a sacred, unchanging institution. The first Catholic marriage service was in the 12th century, and it did not take its present form until the 16th century. The Church of England was created in the 16th century by Henry VIII, who redefined marriage for political purposes.
Marrying someone from a different faith, race, or social class, was once actively discouraged (or even illegal) but is now more widely acceptable. The age of consent for a girl to marry a man was between 7 and 14 years old for centuries in English law.
Another argument is based on traditional gender roles. I doubt most people want to return to the ‘golden age’ before women claimed equal rights. As the scientific understanding of sexual orientation and gender identity develops, so challenges to ‘traditional’ gender roles are likely to increase, and what is considered ‘unnatural’ will be redefined.
Some argue that marriage requires openness to procreation. The logical conclusion would be only to allow a heterosexual couple to marry after fertility test for both partners and an agreement that both intend to have children. Would a registrar or minister refuse a couple who did not want children? Who could not conceive? Who were ‘too old’? It is unlikely they would go that far.
Some claim traditional marriage is the best environment for children. Two supportive parents, one female, one male, are hugely beneficial to healthy child development, but not every heterosexual marriage is safe and stable, nor is any other family structure inadequate. Same-sex couples can only have children after careful consideration; there can be no ‘accidents’. It is now easier for lesbians and gay men to foster and adopt. Most children and young people’s organizations value same-sex couples. Research by the UK’s leading adoption and fostering association shows no negative effects for a child with a lesbian or gay parent. Stonewall’s survey ‘Different Families, Same Love’ revealed children with gay parents wouldn’t want to change their family but wish others were more accepting.
Most people in civil partnerships, their supportive friends and family consider their commitment as marriage already. A cartoon on a greeting card we received shows two men driving away in a car displaying a sign saying ‘Just Civil Partnershipped’. It doesn’t have the same ‘ring’ to it. When I offered my partner a ring in a restaurant overlooking Sydney harbour, I didn’t ask him to ‘civil partnership’ me!
Will we ‘upgrade’ to marriage when it becomes law? Probably. We have talked about doing something in Sydney, where Warren is from, when the law changes there. But in September 2012 a same-sex marriage bill was rejected by a majority in the Australian federal government, so we may have to wait a while. It will be interesting to see if progress in the UK makes any difference to the former colony. We have also thought about doing something simple in London, where my parents live, as they were not well enough to travel to Liverpool last year.
A battle was won last month, but the fight is not over. The debate continues this year as the bill proceeds through Parliament. Having received a majority of almost two-thirds of MPs in favour, it looks certain to become law, but there are more stages to go, and amendments may be made. You can register for updates on the UK Parliament website.
We need to be part of the debate, and not sit idly by while those who think they know what’s best for us pass judgment on our lives and love. As a committed gay couple, we believe that legal protection and affirmation from our society and our faith community does not threaten anyone, except those who have other reasons to feel insecure. The ‘reasons’ of politicians and pastors against marriage equality deserve to be challenged by people like us whose lives expose their fear that their house of cards will fall.
In the coming year I aim to respond to the debate around marriage equality as it develops. It is an idea whose time has come. The invitation, to us and others like us, is to seize the moment and call for equality. As the traditional marriage service says:
‘Speak now or forever hold your peace.’