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Same-Sex Marriage in the UK

By Benali Hamdache

No large strife has been driven up about the bill; certainly nothing on the scale of the protests in France. Instead, in a typically English way, many have muttered loud reservations before retiring to the woodwork defeated.

So here we are. After many promises, countless petitions, lawsuits and interminable Common’s debates Marriage Equality is finally on its way in the UK (though the first actual marriage won’t be until summer of 2014). The process has been anything but immediate, with the government’s consultation first being launched by then Minister for Equality Lynne Featherstone in September 2011. The last two years have seen nearly argument for and against extending the right to marry, much of it rehashed from 2004 when Labour first introduced “separate but equal” Civil Partnerships

For many LGBT activists it has been a case of the same usual suspects trotting out the same old arguments against equal rights. The same architects of laws like Section 28, which banned “promotion” of homosexuality in schools, have stood loudly and angrily proclaiming that same-sex marriage shall bring all sorts of calamity. Hearteningly society has left such political dinosaurs far behind and the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013 has had healthy majorities of support in both legislative bodies. Indeed few would have imagined that the same Conservative Party, which so virulently opposed nearly every bill giving LGBT individuals equal rights in the 90s and 00s, would be the party now legalising same-sex marriage.

Conservative dinosaurs left far behind?

Yet Prime Minister David Cameron’s effort to detoxify his party’s brand, as the “nasty party”, has been by no means entirely successful. His party did not unite behind him and a majority of Conservative MPs voted against the proposals to extend marriage rights to same-sex couples. Worse many of his backbenchers have noisily decried the proposals, likening homosexuality to incest, polygamy and linking the proposals to the end of marriage, the family and perhaps society itself.  The on-going project to modernise the Conservative Party is not yet done.

Equally the Church of England and the Catholic Church have proven to be vocal opponents to the proposals. Organising under the banner of the mildly ironically titled Coalition for Marriage, senior Church figures have argued against equal marriage. Not all faith groups have lined up against the proposals and the Quakers, Liberal Judaism and Unitarians have said they would welcome same-sex marriage ceremonies. Still senior church figures like Archbishop Welby have argued that extending the right to marry was against the “greater good”.

A majority support

Nonetheless, these stances have largely run counter to public sentiment. Polling of the public for the last 10 years has regularly found majority support for the equal right to marry, which has only strengthened with time. Such sentiment mirrors the increasing openness in society and the increasing acceptance for openly LGBTIQ people in public life and culture. Gone are the days where a televised gay kiss would evoke denunciations of “filth” in national newspapers. Instead we have had the leaders of each of the major three parties, leading newspapers and countless celebrities lining up to support the move.

Yet the bill is by no means perfect, and the Green Party of England and Wales has worked hard to highlight this. The bill has failed to guarantee equal rights over pensions for same-sex couples. Unfortunately same-sex couples could face great uncertainty over whether one spouse would have equal inheritance rights to pension benefits should one spouse die. Caroline Lucas, the sole Green MP, submitted amendments to close the loophole but was initially rebuffed by both the coalition government and the opposition Labour Party. The House of Lords eventually introduced a review to examine any inequalities, but failed to meet Caroline Lucas’ calls for immediate resolution.

Real equality?

Moreover the bill has troubling implications for transgender people. The government has effectively introduced a spousal veto, where if one spouse is transitioning sex they must seek their spouse’s permission for effectively the recognition of their legal change of gender. This legislation means that transgender people could find their transition much more difficult. In a time where over a quarter of married trans people said that their spouse made getting divorced difficult, and over half say that in the long term they experienced negative reactions from their spouse, handing over such lopsided power to one spouse is neither needed nor helpful.

The government has also reacted dramatically to concerns over religious freedom, and in some minds has gone too far. The proposals have banned the Church of England explicitly from conducting same-sex marriages, even if they chose to at some point recognise them. Prominent gay rights and Green activist Peter Tatchell has called this move “enshrining discrimination in law”.

Finally while the bill still retains Civil Partnerships for same-sex couples who wish to keep them, the bill does not introduce Civil Partnerships for opposite-sex couples. This is despite overwhelming support for their introduction in the government’s consultation, as well as several high profile campaigns calling for their introduction. Again Caroline Lucas and Peter Tatchell have protested against the omission and have proven to be powerful and effective advocates for introducing actually equal marriage.

In the right direction

Despite these flaws the bill is a positive step in the right direction, even if more work is required. No large strife has been driven up, certainly nothing on the scale of the protests in France. Instead in a typically English way many have muttered loud reservations before retiring to the woodwork defeated. The Conservative Party has seen many senior activists and members resign in contempt at the move. Indeed UKIP, the eurosceptic party currently in ascendency, has been buoyed by defectors because of its anti-marriage equality stance. But on the whole the process has largely been rather sanguine, much to the relief of its many advocates.

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