Here’s What’s Happening With Gay Marriage In The UK

If I were to explain the gay marriage situation in the UK by comparison to US states, I would say we’re like Illinois: second-parent adoption is legal and the laws governing discrimination are pretty good, but we’re still working on the gay marriage front. Gay marriages conducted abroad are recognised as civil unions within the UK, but that’s as far as it’s gone… and then Prime Minister David Cameron actually did something I approve of, and announced his support for gay marriage in October 2011, with the planned legislature coming into effect in 2015. So, PARTY TIME! Right?

You’d think so, wouldn’t you? But you’d be wrong.

David Cameron gives marriage equality the green light

The structure of the UK political system actually means that it’s very easy for Prime Ministers to pass whatever legislation they want. A prerequisite of becoming the PM is having a majority of the 650 seats in the House of Commons, as determined by the general election. Cameron’s Conservative party won 305 seats in the 2010 election, and thus had to form a coalition with the 57 Liberal Democrats (who are a bit like liberal Democrats, but not) in order to create a majority. Thanks to well-enforced party discipline, members of Parliament will almost always vote with their parties or else fear the wrath of the party Whips— who sadly don’t use actual whips.

The Lib Dems are the only party who unequivocally support the measures, and it’s probably their leader, deputy PM Nick Clegg, who has caused Cameron to announce the plans. Unfortunately, some MPs decided that they were morally opposed to gay marriage. Not just some. A sizable number. And they had the Church on their side. And therefore, Cameron decided that there could be a free vote on the issue, allowing politicians to vote with their conscience without fearing being reprimanded by the party. As most of the opposing Labour party also support gay marriage, in theory this shouldn’t be a problem. In reality though, the dissenters are making a lot of noise.

Peter Bone, Conservative MP for Wellingborough, called the proposed marriage law “completely nuts” and insisted that marriage is between a man and a woman. Though Bone himself seems like a total bonehead, a lot of other Tory MPs share his view. According to Coalition for Equal Marriage, 62 MPs have confirmed their plan to vote against the actions, with 50 of them coming from the Conservative party. More worryingly, 326 MPs — just over 50% of the House of Commons — are yet to announce their intentions.

There has been a public consultation on the proposed plans, but the responses gathered from 100,000 people have been overwhelmingly negative. This can mainly be attributed to the Church of England. Because, my dear friends, the UK has an official state religion, i.e. the Anglican Church. The top 26 Bishops in England sit in the unelected House of Lords as the ‘Lords Spiritual,’ with the most important being the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. Rowan Williams. Surprise surprise, he opposes the government’s proposed legislation:

“If it is said that a failure to legalise … same-sex marriage perpetuates stigma or marginalisation for some people, the reply must be, I believe, that issues like stigma and marginalisation have to be addressed at the level of culture rather than law.”

This argument is clearly flawed. Culturally, gay people already have all of the same rights as straight couples, but there are still pockets of discrimination: namely, we don’t have the right to call ourselves “married.” If the law categorically states that people of all sexualities are equal, then society will acquiesce. Importantly, making marriage equal means that asking someone about their relationship status will not automatically reveal their sexual orientation: everyone with that official commitment will be married. Furthermore, if a trans* person transitions after marrying their beau, they will still be legally married rather than having their relationship transmuted into a civil partnership. Not that the Church cares about that. You can turn this post into a drinking game: take a shot every time I mention “the Church.” You can start apologising to your liver now.

These guys are not having it

Due to the integration of church and state, the Church of England genuinely do have a political presence; unlike the Evangelical support of Republicans in the U.S. though, this is institutionalised. The Church’s main fear seems to be that churches would be forced to conduct same-sex marriages in church. It is a legal right of UK citizens to get married in an Anglican church, even if they aren’t believers. If gay couples can get married, they might want to get married in church and this would be terrible and cause the zombie apocalypse! As you might expect, the Church in Wales also holds this position which is disappointing.

Therefore, the game of political ping-pong begins. If political ping-pong was an Olympic sport, we might actually stand a chance of a medal. The government’s proposals are for “civil marriage:” there is no compulsion for Anglican churches to conduct ceremonies. Actually, they might not be allowed to at all, even though some Christian denominations — like the Quakers — would be totally down with it.

The Anglicans have countered this by claiming that if a same-sex couple sued for discrimination over not being allowed to get married in church, the European Court of Human Rights could theoretically order the government to change the law. See, the UK is about 200 years behind America in that we don’t have a written constitution or Bill of Rights. There is no golden standard by which other legislation can be judged; the ECHR is the best we have, and many Euro-sceptic Conservatives hate it on principle for taking sovereignty away from Britain. Despite what the ECHR says though, the British government wouldn’t force churches to allow gay people to marry there. Churches already have the right to refuse to marry previously divorced people, and no successful legal challenges have been made to this.

But alas, all this concession isn’t enough for the Church, who are threatening something pretty radical. Senior bishops say that if the Government push ahead with these plans, it will culminate in the Anglican Church losing their special position within the UK, and may even herald disestablishment. A disagreement over gay marriage could see the Church and the State divorcing. To quote Cole Morton of The Daily Telegraph, who seems to sum it up pretty well:

“The Church of England is unique in seeing gay marriage as a threat to its existence. It was built to care for every soul in every parish, with priests who automatically become agents of the state. They have a legal duty to marry anyone in the parish who wants it and is eligible. Now, for the first time in 500 years, there could be a difference between the Church definition of marriage and the way it is defined in English law. The Church leadership believes this will undermine its unique position, rights and privileges as the established church– deeply ironic considering it was only created so that [King] Henry VIII could defy the Pope and remarry.

Ultimately, looking at the numbers, it seems hopeful that gay marriage legislation will be passed. Deputy PM Clegg is determined, calling it a matter of “when not if”, and MP Andrew Mitchell claims that gay marriage has a majority in every age group save for the over-65s. Cameron will not back down from the one sensible decision he’s made while in power: if that results in the separation of Church and State, I will be among the first in line to raise a glass and say “about f*cking time”. And then make out with my girlfriend, knowing that if we wanted, we could be wife and wife some day.

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I like raspberry lip balm and can't speak French. I also enjoy music, writing and trawling the internet when I should be doing something useful. Aspiring writer and expert music junkie.

Sawyer has written 6 articles for us.


  1. I don’t dislike the politicians that are open about their bigotry quite as much as the ones that try and mask it.

    There has been a wave recently of MPs (all Tory I think) who keep saying that they don’t want to support gay marriage because it’s “not a priority”, and that there are better things to spend time and money on. Such as what? Taxing sausage fucking rolls?

    Gay marriage will get through, I’m certain, at which point the Daily Telegraph will be left scrabbling around for sensationalist headlines with almost the same desperation as the Daily Express was after the Diana conspiracies dried up.

    • I got an email from a local MP, who said that she didn’t understand why gay marriage was an issue when “the economy was in such dire straits”. She’s a Tory, no surprise.

      I also found that, bizarrely, the Daily Telegraph – a staunch Conservative paper – were the most useful resource for gay marriage articles. Most of their columnists/commentators are pro-equality, and it was really refreshing to read.

      • I’ve noticed The Telegraph being (generally) in favour of gay marriage too. I’m not sure how to say this without sounding elitist so I’m just going to go for it….
        The tabloids tend to focus more on opinions and reactionary headlines whereas broadsheets (like The Telegraph) have to put more trust in the facts. Facts of course can be skewed either way but even when using Tory facts, I take this as a re-enforcement that there really aren’t any decent arguments against gay marriage.

        • Perhaps it was anomalous then, the week I went home and the Telegraph had some new unheard-of cardinal spouting some new weak argument against gay marriage as their front-page story every day (literally).

          I have no doubt the Telegraph reports the news faithfully, but you have to look at what they (and other papers) are choosing to report and promote the most heavily in their print edition, and it doesn’t seem quite so right-on. I think the increasing divide in some papers between their offline and online content makes it quite tricky to discern where they really stand.

          You’re entirely right though about how laughable the Tory arguments against gay marriage are that they often end up proving how much for it they should be.

  2. Sawyer, EXCELLENT summary of what’s going on here. And pretty succinct given all our complicated nuances.

    I think it’s definitely when and not if, and Cameron’s ‘free vote’ instruction is absolutely digusting. Clegg was right to point out that the vote itself will be based on a proposal which excludes religion, and free votes are only called when there is a religious connection. So calling a free vote is a total nonsense and by allowing one, Cameron has turned it back from a sensible legal debate about legal status, discrimination, exclusion, into a moral one. I don’t think he realised what an impact that would have, he was just bowing to internal pressure.

    Ho hum. Time. It just takes time. I feel bad for the couples that don’t have it.

  3. The UK’s proposal for a civil marriage sounds like what we have in Spain, in our case gay couples can get married through a civil ceremony, it’s called marriage, it has all the same legal effects, but it has to be done like that. Heterosexual couples who don’t believe in God or in the Catholic church can get married through a civil ceremony as well, but obviously gays can’t get married through a Catholic ceremony. If the Church of England allowed gay couples to marry it’d blow my mind, would be amazing.

    I’m sure it’s going to happen anyway, I have a lot of faith in England in that sense.

    • I do think the Church of England will eventually allow gay couples to marry too… and I don’t think it will be eons either. The timing of this consultation is awkward for the church, with Rowan Williams stepping down from the Archbishop of Canterbury role. He’s a more liberal Christian and tradition follows that they’ll be a more conservative Archbishop next, so it’s likely that it’ll hold firm for another ten years. This is kind of disappointing, because whilst Williams hasn’t made any great strides to opening up marriage he has overseen an Anglican communion that has significantly diversified.

      (I know Sawyer posted that culture vs the law quote, but I think Williams has taken a stronger view on this issue because of the weight of the church behind him. As an individual, I think he’s much of a ‘Christ is love, not hate’ type… and he’s so academic that it would be easy to point him to a load of evidence about culture being led by legal frameworks.)

      • Would it be completely impossible to allow same sex marriage in the UK without the church agreeing to marrying same sex couples then? Can’t civil marriage happen without the approval of the Church?

        • I think it depends on your interpretation of the law. Because the church is fundamentally entwined with the state, the church says they would be obliged and they don’t want to be, thank you very much. Wheras govt is saying we’re not going to force you, don’t get your knickers in a twist. Church is afraid of case law, if civil marriage is brought in, but like Sawyer said, highly unlikely to be successful.

  4. Just to add to the nuance of things- the devolved Scottish Parliament has also concluded a separate public consultation on same sex marriage with the Scottish Government broadly tending towards supporting same sex (civil) marriage. And we’ve also had our fair share of drama with Cardinals and the Church of Scotland. I can’t help but agree on the ‘when, not if’ front though, on the whole.
    Also, I really appreciate that this article is here :)

    • According to my mum the Church of Scotland fear change in general. I’ll take her word for it since she’s a member, but still filled in the Equal Marriage consultation (as did my dad and any other friends and family I asked to/harassed until they filled it in) with a resounding ‘Yes!’ for marriage equality. I read in the news that a recent survey showed that 64% (of 1,003 people polled) support marriage equality in Scotland. Of course, the Roman Catholic Church called the survey flawed, but they would. I can/can’t wait until the official consultation results are published.

      • Yay for your parents! I read that survey too and I’m eager to believe it, although yeah, it has of course come under some criticism from the Catholic church and other anti-same sex marriage Christian groups- no major surprises there. I know what you mean- I wouldn’t exactly say I’m ‘looking forward’ to seeing the results, for obvious reasons, but I’m definitely itching to read them.

    • Thanks for this! It’s a great article, but I was wondering how the same issues were being handled in Scotland. If I ever move back to the U.K, it’ll be there.

  5. This really is a fabulous article, but my thoughts on it were solidified when I saw the synopsis on the main page rhymed.

    Very depressing to hear many of the 100,000 responses were negative. I suppose this means whilst most of the country are in favour of gay marriage, many people fall into the neutral don’t-care-enough-to-fill-out-a-consultation on it camp. How upsetting.

    Still, I’m glad things are finally happening in regards to gay marriage. I felt like because civil partnerships provided identical rights to marriage, the fight for gay marriage has been quieter here than in other countries for a while.
    And as much as I dislike many of Cameron’s policies, I do appreciate him standing up and saying he believes in equality.

  6. Holy smokes. So, filling in the AS survey earlier I mentioned in the ‘What would you add to Autostraddle’ question that I’d like to see more UK/Euro-centric articles and MERE HOURS LATER this appears. That was fast Autostraddle. Good Autostraddle. Snausages for you Autostraddle.

    Seriously though, this is a pretty great article that sums up where the campaign for marriage equality in England is at. I think there are a few differences between the campaign in England and the campaign in Scotland since there were separate government consultations but the essential points are the same. Unfortunately David Cameron has totally destroyed any brownie points he accrued with me on this subject due to the Conservative party’s plans to scrap housing benefits for the under-25s which will massively effect massively diverse demographics of under-25s in general (obviously) but cut off an essential life-line for so many LGBTQ youth who cannot just ‘move in with their parents’.

    Anyway, off on a tangent there. Great article. Two thumbs up.

  7. Fuck Cameron. Fuck the Tories.

    Fuck the Church of England because it was literally invented by a fat king who wanted to shag lots of women.

    • Yeah, there is definitely a metric fuckton of irony in the Church of England getting their knickers in a twist over a potential ‘redefinition of marriage’ when Henry VIII seconded the Church from the authority of Rome in order to..drumroll please..REDEFINE MARRIAGE. Your definition of this irony is better though, but let’s not forget he beheaded two of the women he married. That leg that The Church of England are trying to stand on is looking shakier by the second.

  8. The advantage of a free vote is that it allows us to pinpoint who not to vote for in the next election!

    Nicola Blackwood, MP for Oxford West. I await your vote :)

  9. Gah. one problem with this article to me: the anglican church is not really all that united at the moment so it doesn’t really work referring to it as a single entity.

    Williams’ position is slightly hard to judge as he has (before becoming AoC) been a huge supporter of gay rights and now is trying to hold together an ever more polarised church (probably a large part of the reason he’s stepping down)

    Also, bishops are not their congregations, the view of a bishop is not that of even the ministers under him, let alone the churchgoers.

    Many high profile members of the CoE have also said they are in favour of gay marriage

    Then there’s also personal analogy of my old youth minister being perfectly in favour too.

    So yeah the ‘official’ stance is not really all that representative of the church. They should really just set up a church survey for it.

    • I completely agree with you about the whole divided Anglican church thing, but I thought it might get a bit convoluted if I tried to explain the nuances of Church thought as well as of the political system. I think it’s true of all schools of thought that you can say “there are exceptions”. All the Anglicans I know personally (save for my family) are pro-gay marriage too, so I feel like the perception of public opinion has been coloured by people claiming to speak for their groups, y’know?

      • This. I have a number of close Anglican friends and they’re just dying to come to me and my partner’s wedding. But overall the church hierarchy seem fairly unified against, with dissenting pro-gay marriage voices being shouted down hard.

        Of course if I were being cynical I could suggest a connection between the Church having an ever ageing, decreasing congregation and the lack of majority support for gay marriage in the over 65s.

      • Yeah that’s fair enough but to provide a couple of counterexamples those links weren’t hard to find. Just wish i could sind Rowan Williams older stuff on the subject. Met him once, great guy, have a photo leaning on his shoulder.

  10. I love that we are having this conversation and all these American’s are probably like ‘whats a AoC. wtf is going on why isn’t the internet talking about the US?!?!’… I jest ;)

  11. This was great, between the article and the comments I’ve learned a lot. I remember the first time a professor said that the UK doesn’t have a written constitution, I was so confused.

  12. I didn’t know that the Church of England had the right to refuse to marry previously divorced people. Odd, considering (as already noted) the Church of England was founded for the purpose of divorce…

    I was raised Episcopalian, which I guess would be seen as the American communion of the Church of England. I never knew there was this divide in the Anglican communion until I grew up and left the church. Our church was in a liberal city in a liberal neighborhood, and we prayed for an end to racism, sexism, and homophobia every week. And as a child, I thought everyone did such things in church. I guess ignorance was bliss…

    So it was fascinating for me to read about the consequences of church rule on civil rule. Especially since church rule from the Church of England (or the “official policy” or whatever) varies from how I was brought up. It’s also fascinating that the Church of England is the official Church of England. Yes, it’s in the title, but sometimes things need to be spelled out (the American educational system wins again!).

    I guess what I’m trying to say is that this article was great. And I’m glad that you broke down parliamentary rule and majorities and free votes, because it certainly helped this ignorant (but eager to learn!) Yank. Thank you! :-)

  13. Hey – about marriage being legal and religious groups ‘not having to marry them’. I live in Toronto and that is true. Here I could legally marry my girlfriend no problem – but asking to have a ceremony in a church could pose a problem. Churches are allowed to say no -It is about the freedom to religion or such I suppose. There are certain churches/congregations/priests/pastors who will happily marry same-sex couples and others that would say no. It is a bit nuanced.

  14. Huh. I had no idea that the Anglican Church had actual legal power in England… Excellent overview, Sawyer!

  15. Great job, Sawyer
    I second whoever said “more UK/Eurocentric News and stuff”

  16. I’ve no love lost for Fat Dave and I’m pretty sure he’s cynically jumping on the “gay is cool!” bandwagon but overall, I think the Church is fighting a losing battle here. They’ve gotten so much bad press already over the last couple of years, remember all that crap with St Pauls and the Occupy protesters? Even though he’s against gay marriage, in broad terms Rowan Williams is a moderate bordering on nearly left wing. Whoever replaces him when he steps down (soon, I believe?) will almost certainly not be. Not a good time to be an old fashioned right-winger when the country is swinging left in backlash over Tory spending cuts, amongst other things. I foresee trouble ahead for the Church…

  17. I can’t really add anything of substance to this. However, Rowan Williams was once on the Cambridge LGBT mailing list. True fact[z].

  18. I’m not sure about the “UK is 200 years behind the USA” because we don’t have a written constitution comment.
    I’m sure there are a few countries who don’t have an american style bill of rights, and from what I can tell in America it’s not done much good, people interpret it as they see fit. Doesn’t the right to freedom of religion bolster the anti-marriage group over there?
    Even if it does work well for America, contrary to what some people think, the USA is not a blueprint for democratic nations.

    • Oh, and whilst researching I found that the Magna Carta was the antecedent for the bill of rights which would put the USA 800 years behind us.

    • The UK not having a written constitution is a bit of a myth. It’s just not all written in one document, but is rather a collection of acts and legislation that have grown organically over hundreds of years.

      Perversely, I wonder if the mildly confusing state of affairs over here is better, because it’s harder to find a constitutional soundbite to use in defence of blowing somebody’s face off, for example.

      • While the issues of interpreting the 2nd Amendment are indeed complex, it does not, nor has it ever, defended “blowing someone’s face off”. Harming or killing another person, regardless of the weapon used, is still a crime. We’re not entirely barbarians. ;)

    • Freedom of religion has definitely been an issue here in the U.S. for marriage equality, as well as for other issues, like contraception. If I hear or see the term “conscience clause” one more time, I’ll think I’ll vomit. We’re so afraid of curtailing someone’s religious expression that discrimination is often excused, if it’s used in a religious context. In some instances, you can be denied services if it violates the provider’s religious beliefs. And even though they’re not supposed to, churches/clergy will still get involved in politics by telling people how they should vote or whom they should vote for, so… It’s frustrating to say the least. And it’s sobering to know that the U.K. is still grappling with the issue. Take heart in one thing, though. At least if you have a civil union in one part of England, it’ll be recognized all over the country, unlike here where a civil union/marriage is only recognized in a few states, and not recognized by the federal government at all. Oh, and one last thing… when you say that the U.S. isn’t a blueprint for democratic nations, I think we’d be hard pressed to come up with a nation that is. Bear in mind that no democratic system is perfect. After hearing so many folks from the U.K. complain about their government, I would think that would be obvious. Also, in some ways, I think we’re more alike than we are different. America is a republic, not a democracy. We also elect representatives who then vote “in our best interests”. And therein lies the problem… relying on others to decide what’s best for us. That’s something we all share, both British and American. That said, great article. I’d like to read more. Any suggestions for good news sources from the U.K. that I might be able to access here?

  19. “Senior bishops say that if the Government push ahead with these plans, it will culminate in the Anglican Church losing their special position within the UK, and may even herald disestablishment. A disagreement over gay marriage could see the Church and the State divorcing”

    God, I hope so.

  20. David Cameron is an naive Tory who has no idea about the real world. The Conservative Party have “promised” to get round to giving same-sex couples full marriage rights once they’ve sorted the economy, the problems in the Middle East, why Noel Edmonds is still alive etc. The promise is a publicity stunt to get queer votes, yet they haven’t put it through because they don’t want to lose their Thatcherite voters either, so they’re playing the victim “Ah, it’s the Church!”. The Church has no legal power. It’s bullshit.

  21. As a Labour party member, I have to say I’m generally not a fan of ol’ Cameron, and I do agree with hopelesscynic that he’s probably not doing this because he particularly gives a fuck about us and our rights.

    However, let’s keep this in perspective! Our right-wing leader coming out as whole-heartedly pro-gay marriage a few years back (I think?) when the US’s left-wing counterpart only said he was okay with us just recently… it’s a good step for us, right? Or maybe it just shows the Republicans are hopelessly behind the times. Plus if he is doing it as a publicity stunt, that means he must think society is, generally, pro-queer. Right?

    p.s. PETER BONE is a dick and nobody likes him and have you seen him? he’s legit terrifying. I literally cower when he shows up on PMQs.

  22. Even though I am a British gay I think this change in the legislation is irrelevant and pointless. UK civil partnership is already equal to marriage, the only problem with it as I see it is that the ceremony cannot be religious it must be civil. Even religions that approve of gay marriage can only perform blessings. This change does not correct this, it is purely and simply a superficial change in name. Most people in civil partnerships call themselves married anyway.

    It is clear that this is only a concession to the lib dems. I think that if the lib dems could not negotiate full gay marriage with the right for any church that wants to, to be allowed to perform it then they shouldn’t have bothered. Having this dispute now will mean that no more improvements will be made for a long time because the right will not be happy if the issue is brought up again after they think we have got what we want. I am tempted to agree with the newspapers saying there are more important issues, the only thing the libs dems seem to have got out of this collation are superficial pieces of legislation like this. They should have fought harder against important things that their party was always supposed to stand for such as against the dismantling of the NHS and rising student fees.

    Someone earlier said free votes are only called when there is a religious connection, that’s not true they are used on any contentious issue that is not party manifesto. Here you can find a list of them over the last few years; they include a water bill and a hunting bill. It is perfectly fair for Cameron to give his party a free vote on the issue.

  23. I’m not quite sure I trust David Cameron with my rights, to be honest.

    Him supporting gay marriage almost feels like a peer pressure thing because the majority do want it and I’m pretty sure that if he just said ‘listen guys, we’re part of the United Nations, the UN say that everyone has the right to marry (it’s in the list of 30 human rights that all of the UN countries are supposed to follow) and let’s be real, we’re being pretty shitty by not holding ourselves to that’.

    Also he appointed a bigot as the Minister of Quality, otherwise known as the woman who has voted AGAINST gay adoption every time she’s had the chance and is generally an all round grade A jackhole.

    So I don’t know, I don’t like him but I hope he follows through.

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