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.
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.
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.
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.
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!