April 6, 2012 in Ben Bradshaw
I support gay marriage. I will vote for it if this Government brings forward legislation. Do I think a law change is or should be a priority for the LGBT community? No and here’s why.
We already have gay marriage. It’s called Civil Partnership. That ground-breaking legislation passed by the Labour Government conferred on same sex couples exactly the same rights enjoyed by married couples. Tens of thousands of people have entered into a Civil Partnership. In my experience, and I declare an interest as one of them, most of these people feel married. They call themselves married, so do their friends and relatives who attended their “weddings”. They do not feel their Civil Partnership is inferior or unequal to their friends’ marriages. There is a fervent wish among some (and again I’m one of these) that the faith groups they belong to would recognise their relationships in the same way as the state does, but that is a separate issue which I’ll come back to later.
For gay marriage to be a “priority” it needs to be better than or different from Civil Partnerships. I haven’t yet heard an explanation as to how what the Government is proposing would be different or better. And if it were, where would that leave the tens of people in Civil Partnerships? Inferior? Unequal? A lot of people have taken me to task on Twitter since I expressed some of these views in a recent interview with the Washington Post. I’ve asked all of them what their understanding is of the difference between what the Government is proposing and Civil Partnerships. I’m still waiting for a convincing explanation. Perhaps the most honest one came from someone who said it’s just a word, but “we want the word marriage”. It’s semantic. The only difference I can think of in the current legislation between marriage and civil partnership (and this was the subject of a wonderful put down of Lord Tebbit by Baroness Scotland during the passage of the Civil Partnership Bill) is that heterosexual marriage must be consummated by sexual intercourse. That’s a difference that I suspect most lesbian and gay couples can happily live with.
Some of the most persuasive arguments in favour of gay marriage have been made by the antis. The description of it as “grotesque” by the Scottish Roman Catholic leader Cardinal O’Brien and his comparing it to slavery were themselves grotesque. But the antis have something in common with some of the supporters of gay marriage in that they are both over claiming for the change.
One of the most thoughtful Tweets I’ve had came from someone who said using the word marriage was important for gay and lesbian people who are religious. I agree. Many of us who are religious already call our Civil Partnerships marriages and we dearly wish our faith groups, in my case the Church of England, would recognise and celebrate our loving commitment as well. But the Government’s proposals won’t do that. They won’t force faith groups into accepting or conducting gay marriages just as the Civil Partnerships legislation didn’t force them into accepting or conducting Civil Partnerships. But some more enlightened faith groups – the Quakers, United Reformed and some liberal Synagogues – do have embraced Civil Partnerships and will celebrate them on their premises. The Church of England is even actively discussing the prospect. Many Anglican priests and parishes would like to offer Civil Partnerships in Church. Will those discussions and progress be helped or hindered by a parallel debate about gay marriage?
So this in summary is why, while I’ll support gay marriage, it’s not for me the priority. The fact that teenagers are still driven to suicide by homophobic bullying is a priority. Hate crime, homophobia in the workplace, against elderly lesbians and gays, in sport, are priorities. Good healthcare and health and sex education should be priorities. The spread of LGBT human rights to most of the rest of the world where people are still persecuted or worse just for being gay is definitely a priority. Changing the words Civil Partnership to gay marriage when for most people they’re interchangeable anyway – is not my priority. But I’ll vote for it and hope we get it – if only to further expose the prejudice of some of those who oppose it.