UK LGBT Politics Crash Course: One Same-Sex Wedding Ring to Rule Them All

2013 brought equal marriage to the shores of the UK, and the gays were saved! Well not really. Or not much at all? Same-sex marriage legislation was a momentous achievement last year, and in this first installment of a three-part crash course in UK LGBT politics for 2014 we’ll explore what’s happened, where we go from here and why it matters.

What’s happened?

In England and Wales, the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill passed with significant majority votes in both the House of Commons and House of Lords and was granted Royal Assent on 17 July 2013. In Scotland, the Marriage and Civil Partnerships Bill passed Stage 1 (of 3) on 20 November. In Northern Ireland, however, the Assembly has repeatedly voted against marriage rights for same-sex couples and the Democratic Unionist Party has made clear that it does not intend to legislate on same-sex marriage in this term.

Celebrations outside Westminster Parliament as the marriage bill passed its Third Reading via Wikimedia Commons

Celebrations outside Westminster Parliament as the marriage bill passed its Third Reading
via Wikimedia Commons

Same-sex civil partnerships, which offer similar legal protections to marriage, have been recognised under the Civil Partnership Act in all four countries in the UK since 2005. With the legalisation of same-sex marriage, the government has promised a full review and public consultation of this Act, including whether it should be extended to opposite-sex couples.

What’s coming up next?

Same-sex marriages in England and Wales will be able to take place from 29 March 2014, while those with existing civil partnerships will be able to “convert” them to marriages by the end of the year.

The next stage of Scotland’s Bill will take place on 16 January. While the Bill is backed by a majority of MSPs and the Scottish population, the earliest it is hoped to come into effect is 2015.

What’s at stake?

The England and Wales Act leaves much to be desired with regard to:

  • Transphobia: The “spousal veto” requires that a married trans* person obtain the consent of their spouse to “continue” their marriage upon applying for a Gender Recognition Certificate. This places trans* people at the mercy of spouses who are frequently hostile: a 2013 survey that found that 44% of trans* respondents have had their partners or spouses actively attempt to prevent them from transitioning, while 29% stated that a spouse has made divorce difficult. Why the spousal clause, then? The government argues that it would be unfair for a marriage to be converted from an opposite-sex one to a same-sex one without the spouse’s consent. This isn’t only an ethical issue but a legal one: opposite-sex marriages, governed by the Marriage Act 1949, are still legally distinct (and thus accorded different rights) from same-sex ones covered by this new Act. But the “veto” exists also simply because of transphobia – clearly the sanctity of the institution of marriage trumps trans* people’s right to self-determination.
  • Religious Exemptions: Outside of grousing from Tory backbenchers, opposition to same-sex marriage legislation came mostly from religious factions (with the exception of Quakers and the Liberal and Reform synagogues). While religious institutions are now free to choose whether or not they wish to perform same-sex marriages, the Church of England and Church in Wales are explicitly banned from doing so. Ministers cannot be punished for refusing to wed same-sex couples, but can be punished for agreeing to do so. This not only continues institutionalised homophobia, particularly penalising Anglicans, but is a rather bizarre take on “religious freedom.”
  • Neoliberalism: It is not a happy coincidence or surprisingly progressive that a Conservative government passed same-sex marriage. Marriage is in itself a conservative ideal, tied to one dominant idea of what relationships and families should look like and a particularly useful tool to privatise systems of care when the government is simultaneously attempting to withdraw state provision of welfare. What’s been missing from the debate on same-sex marriage is how the benefits of civil marriage are often strongly demarcated by class: what’s celebrated as “equality” in immigration rights for LGBT people, for example, is only open to same-sex couples in which the citizen spouse earns at least £18,600 a year, which 47% of people in employment in the UK do not. The problem is not just that pension payments are unequal between opposite-sex and same-sex couples – it’s that these provisions are linked to marital status at all.

“I don’t support gay marriage despite being a Conservative. I support gay marriage because I am a Conservative.”

UK Prime Minister David Cameron

The Peter Tatchell Foundation and Equal Love Campaign have promised to lobby against some discriminatory aspects of the existing legislation if/when the government’s review of the Civil Partnership Act begins, but since same-sex marriages are a done deal at this point, it’s hard to imagine a strong, coordinated reform movement any time soon. It’s also unlikely that we’ll see the fervour of the gay marriage lobby transferred to other LGBT causes, such as homo/transphobic bullying and youth homelessness.

Stonewall campaigners outside Westminster Parliament via Japan Times

Stonewall campaigners outside Westminster Parliament
via Japan Times

However, there is perhaps hope to be found in similar debates in Scotland. Unsurprisingly, the Church of Scotland and Catholic Church stand opposed to same-sex marriage legislation. As in England and Wales, religious bodies can “opt-in” to perform same-sex wedding rites and will not be coerced to do so, but thus far there is no indication that there will be a blanket ban similar to the one placed on the Church of England and Church in Wales. Additionally, the Equality Network believes that there is strong support among MSPs for five proposed amendments to the Bill that would more fully realise the rights of trans* and intersex people.

Stay tuned for the next installment of this mini-series on UK LGBT politics!

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Fikri has written 61 articles for us.


  1. Really excited for this series, Fikri! I don’t know why, but I’ve become somewhat obsessed with the various ways countries/municipalities are working to legalize marriage, and what sorts of strange arrangements they have worked out to keep both supporters and detractors from rioting as they do.

    On another note, I really hope David Cameron’s comments and your point about marriage being a milestone of conservatism, and how that should give weight to marriage equality being a conservative goal, catch on in the U.S. I know the way “conservative” and “liberal” labels operate is different in different countries, but still. If even one American political power player could stand up and say, “I support marriage equality BECAUSE I’m a Republican, and Republicans believe that marriage is the backbone of any family,” I might just die happy. There would still be work to do convincing him that marriage isn’t the be-all, end-all he believes it to be, but at least we’d be moving in the right direction.

  2. Delighted to see content about the UK on here. I’m British but live abroad so don’t always manage to keep completely on top of all the goings-on at home, though I’ve been following the same-sex marriage debate pretty intently (for obvious reasons).

    There are certainly a lot of things that need to be fixed as far as the bill is concerned, but hopefully those things will be addressed sooner rather than later. I agree with the points you made about marriage and class – the immigration thing is particularly worrying for me as I’m one half of a transatlantic relationship and won’t be earning that much money any time soon. However, I can’t help but think that Conservative support of same-sex marriage was largely a cynical (and somewhat desperate) plan by the leadership to make an outdated and currently unpopular party look more ‘current’ and relevant to Britain today. Sadly, I think the Conservative backbenchers’ opinions were more representative of the party in general w/r/t LGBT people.

    • I agree with this, and it’s a tactic that’s working – while the Tories might be doing more poorly in polls now (who woulda thought?), David Cameron is shining as the New Face of Conservatism. They legit love him over at PinkNews.

      I do think the timing is mainly a calculated distraction from austerity measures though, more than just a broad PR makeover for the party. This government’s tried hard to have us not look, well, hard, at what they’re doing – and they’ve had so much help too, what with the Jubilee and the royal baby/wedding and everything – and they’re still ridic unpopular at the end of it all, but I am super uncomfortable at how effectively the Tories are courting mainstream LGB organisations/publications. And while I’m not a Lib Dem supporter by any stretch of the imagination, it’s unfair to not give more credit to Lynne Featherstone, who did more for this Bill than Cameron ever did.

  3. Excellent breakdown of the issues in the UK! I still can’t believe the trans*-exclusive policy. I think if your spouse isn’t okay with you officially changing your legal gender, then that’s grounds for divorce, not…enslaving your partner from living in their true identity. What the fuck.

    • Exactly! This is what so many of the (cis) politicians and activists backing this don’t see – there’s a massive difference between informing your spouse and actively requiring their consent, giving them leverage against you in divorce proceedings (or the continuation of a hostile relationship). Actually even if you took away the consent bit and made it mandatory disclosure, it’s not the government’s place to require anyone to say anything to anyone. It’s paternalistic, invasive and really, really dismissive of the hostility that trans* people face.

      • Honestly, I don’t think it’s any of the government’s business what gender people are or whether they are trans or not. I favor the abolition of people having a legal sex or gender assigned to them at birth. There should be no official records on the matter, similar to how there are no official records recording what people’s favorite color is. It’s absurd to try and grant transphobic cis people special powers over their spouses lives. You have a problem with your spouse? Divorce them. No-fault divorce exists for a reason and should be easy enough to obtain that it is sufficient for anyone who is not happy with their marriage for whatever reason. Actually, since we are privatizing gender. . .why not privatize marriage (including straight marriage, of course) as well? It’s discriminatory against single people for the government to grant special privileges to people with marriages. You want to make a life commitment to someone, fine, but I don’t know why that should influence how you are treated according to public policy.

  4. It’s really great to see some content on the UK here. It’s not only good for keeping us all up to date, but it also shows others how we’re looking. I’ve been following this all closely, but it’s nice to see it all written out so clearly. I wasn’t really aware of some of the trans issues, but I feel so informed now.
    Personally, I’m really hoping for the Church to get it’s act together. If I do marry, I want it to be in a church (even though I’m an atheist, I spent a lot of time in church as a child and my Mum is a pretty big believer. I just argued with the vicar). Here’s hoping for that and for trans* rights.

  5. I’m so excited about this series! Good to get a solid look at how neoliberalism works into all this.

  6. The Northern Ireland situation isn’t really a surprise to folks following “the troubles”. I am not shocked at all by the inequalities between straight and gay marriage, or the fact that they are considered separate things, thus leading to the issues for trans people. I feel like a lot of compromises had to be made in order to get anything passed with a view to using the newly created gay marriage situation as a door wedge, as it were, to enable other equalities to creep in in the future. It’s possibly the only good thing the Tories have done and the cynic in me thinks it’s a votes tactic. Also let’s not forget we have a coalition government (The oft called much derided Condem-nation) and those pesky Liberal Democrats will have been poking and prodding in the background. Nick Clegg was publicly very supportive of gay marriage…bless his poor little apparently powerless cottons.

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