Equal in love?
Peter Tatchell says it is time to end the twin bans on gay civil marriages and heterosexual civil partnerships
British law enshrines both homophobic and heterophobic discrimination. Same-sex couples are banned from civil marriages and opposite-sex couples are banned from civil partnerships. Two wrongs don’t make a right.
The Matrimonial Causes Act 1973, s. 11, states: "A marriage ... shall be void [if] ... the parties are not respectively male and female."
According to the Civil Partnership Act 2004, s. 3(1): "Two people are not eligible to register as civil partners ... if they are not of the same sex."
The Equal Love campaign seeks to end this sexual orientation discrimination by amending the law to open up both civil marriages and civil partnerships to all couples, without discrimination. We say: give everyone a free and equal choice.
Our campaign is backed by the British Humanist Association, the Gay and Lesbian Humanist Association and many other organisations.
Prohibiting black or Jewish people from getting married would provoke uproar and charges of racism. The outlawing of gay marriages should provoke similar outrage. Excluding heterosexual couples from civil partnerships is equally reprehensible.
The bans on same-sex civil marriages and opposite-sex civil partnerships are a form of sexual apartheid – one law for gay couples and another law for heterosexual partners. In a democratic society, we should all be equal before the law.
Personally, I would not want to get married. I agree with the feminist critique. Marriage has a sad, sexist history, where women were seen as the property of men. Even today the father of the bride often gives her away to her future husband, symbolising the way women were historically traded between men. Indeed, one meaning of the word husband is: to manage and preserve. This sums up the way some men still treat their wives.
Despite my criticism of the institution of marriage, as a democrat and a human rights campaigner, I defend absolutely the right of others to get married if they wish. Neither I nor the government have any right to dictate and limit people’s options. For me, same-sex marriages – and opposite-sex civil partnerships – are a simple issue of equality.
Faced with the coalition government’s refusal to end this discrimination, eight British couples – four gay and four heterosexual – filed a joint legal application to the European Court of Human Rights on 2 February, seeking to secure equality in civil marriage and civil partnership law.
The legal advisor to the eight couples and author of the legal application is Professor Robert Wintemute of the School of Law at Kings College London. Outlining the legal basis of the Equal Love challenge, he explained:
“Banning same-sex marriage and different-sex civil partnerships violates Articles 8, 12 and 14 of the European Convention on Human Rights.
“It's discriminatory and obnoxious, like having separate drinking fountains or beaches for different racial groups, even though the water is the same. The only function of the twin bans is to mark lesbian and gay people as socially and legally inferior to heterosexual people.
“I am confident that we have a good chance of persuading the European Court of Human Rights that the UK's system of segregating couples into two 'separate but equal' legal institutions violates the European Convention. I predict that same-sex couples will be granted access to marriage in the UK and that this will be because the British Government will eventually accept that it cannot defend the current discriminatory system."
The appeal to the European Court of Human Rights is the culmination of bids by the eight couples to register their relationships. Late last year, the four same-sex couples were refused marriage licenses at register offices in Greenwich, Northampton and Petersfield. Four heterosexual couples were also turned away when they applied for civil partnerships in Islington, Camden, Bristol and Aldershot.
All eight couples received letters of refusal from their register offices, which we have used as the evidential basis to challenge in the European Court of Human Rights the UK’s exclusion of gay couples from civil marriages and straight couples from civil partnerships. Since there is no substantive difference in the rights and responsibilities involved in gay civil marriages and heterosexual civil partnerships, there is no justification for having two mutually exclusive and discriminatory systems.
David Watters and Richard Hull are one of the same-sex couples who have filed the case in the European Court of Human Rights. Richard explains why:
“If we live in a country where we are supposed to have equal rights regardless of our sexuality, why is it necessary for the gay community to be relegated to a separate institution, civil partnerships? We should have the same access to civil marriage as heterosexual couples. The ban on gay marriage should be overturned because, until it is, we are still not truly equal citizens.
“Civil partnerships are a recent invention, which create a divide between homosexual and heterosexual couples. They are a legal form of segregation, much like apartheid but based upon sexual orientation rather than race.
“It is a fundamental human right to marry the person of one’s choice. I would like to exercise my right to marry David. I don’t want to be his civil partner. Desire, domesticity, intimacy and love make no gender distinction. My wish to marry David is equal in depth and validity to the wish of any heterosexual person to marry the person they love,” he said.
The straight couples who are part of the Equal Love legal bid include Stephanie Munro and Andrew O’Neill. Stephanie said:
“It doesn’t seem fair that in a democracy we can be denied a civil partnership just because we happen to be heterosexual. Andrew and I love each other very much. We don’t like marriage because of its patriarchal history. I don’t want to be called a wife and Andrew doesn’t husband me. We are equal partners and the language of civil partnerships better reflects the character of our relationship."
Times are changing. Nearly two-thirds of the British people back marriage equality. In June 2009, a Populus opinion poll found that 61% of the public agree with the statement: “Gay couples should have an equal right to get married, not just to have civil partnerships.” Only 33% disagreed. We can probably safely assume that a similar poll today would reveal even greater support for gay civil marriages – and for the right of heterosexuals to have a civil partnerships.
Why is parliament holding back? The leaders of the Labour, Green and Liberal Democrat parties support marriage equality. Even Boris Johnson endorses the idea. Sadly, David Cameron, George Osborne and Theresa May are resisting the clamour to end discrimination in civil marriage and civil partnership law. What happened to the Conservative’s self-proclaimed new liberal, gay-friendly agenda?
After all, marriage is a Conservative value. Tories encourage and approve loving, stable relationships because enduring care and commitment are good for individuals, families and for the well-being of society as a whole.
Contrary to what the critics say, gay marriage doesn’t undermine marriage, it strengthens it. At a time when large numbers of heterosexuals are deserting marriage and cohabitating instead, shouldn’t Conservatives see it as a good thing that many same-sex couples still believe in marriage and want to be part of it?
The elimination of discrimination in marriage and partnership law is consistent with modern, liberal Conservatism, and with the Prime Minister’s personal pledge to eradicate homophobia and secure gay equality. Over to you, Dave.
You can find out more on the Equal Love Campaign website, where you can sign a petition calling on the government to end discrimination in marriage and civil partnerships