A pair of brides waving the rainbow flag on their wedding day
Alamy Stock Photo

My wife and I tied the knot in 2017, four years after same-sex weddings began to be legally recognised in England and Wales. When we made the decision to walk down the aisle, I felt a sense of walking in the footsteps of people who had gone before me – of parents, grandparents and people long dead. Of making a similar choice and commitment, of drawing on a shared cultural inheritance. But I was also aware of the lack of a blueprint for weddings like mine, for marriages like mine. Of forging a new path that more people might tread behind me.

A decade after the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act became law, more than 200,000 people in England and Wales now live in legally formalised same-sex relationships. The Act marked a crucial victory in a long struggle to achieve security, dignity and pride for queer people. It provides visibility to LGBTQ+ people as partners, but also in roles beyond our marital relationships: as in-laws and, crucially for many, as parents within an acknowledged family unit.

The introduction of same-sex marriage to the United Kingdom followed decades of lobbying and active campaigning in the face of entrenched political, social and religious opposition. In 2004, activists had achieved the first formal recognition of same-sex relationships in the Civil Partnership Act. This quasi-marital option sought to remove the financial, legal and technical inequalities faced by couples unable to marry.

However, very explicitly and deliberately, it avoided opening marriage to them. A hierarchy remained clear and enshrined in law.

In 2013, when the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act was passed in Parliament, the then Women’s and Equalities Minister described the institution as “the bedrock of our society”. With people marrying later and more people outliving their marriages, single living has seen a dramatic rise in recent decades. But marriage remains ubiquitous across the UK and around most of the world. Most people on the planet still make the choice to join the institution at some point in their lives. In the UK alone, around 250,000 new marriages take place every year. Just over half of the population aged 16 or older are married today. Many more have been or will be. Generation after generation, there’s something about marriage that keeps drawing us in.

A statement to the world

My wife and I didn’t spend a great deal of time deeply interrogating our motivations to take the leap. Marriage provided us with an opportunity to commit to each other in a serious way. There aren’t many choices that people make and imagine should last a lifetime. Not a lot that we expect to be or do forever. In the UK, we change jobs on average every five years. By the time I got married, I had already lived in 13 homes. People often have several relationships in a lifetime. Marriage is a way of saying “this is different” – to each other, and to everyone else. Of finding an anchoring relationship in a transient world.

Like so many people, my motivations to marry were intimately personal – romantic, symbolic and a little intangible. But they were also pragmatic. My wife and I made the decision to marry alongside the choice to become parents. Being married meant that we would both be legally acknowledged as the parent of our children when they were born. Our marriage makes a clear statement to the world that we are co-parents within a family unit. Before the Civil Partnership Act, many people in same-sex couples were not only excluded from the financial benefits of marriage (such as tax and pensions) but were left legally vulnerable both as partners and as co-parents, particularly on the incapacitation or passing of one partner. Marriage has long been designed to provide security to its participants.

Many LGBTQ+ people reject marriage as incompatible with their values and their lives. With a long history of excluding queer couples, of oppressing women and enshrining gender binaries in law, some ask whether it is possible, or even desirable, for the institution to be redeemed. Marriage continues to privilege a tightly defined, restrictive and, for many, heteronormative way of life. It continues to dismiss people whose relationships and families don’t conform to this privileged model, including asexual people and those in polyamorous relationships.

Yet the desire of queer couples to tie the knot remains high. When my now wife and I were ready to marry, the English institution was (finally and recently) ready for us to make that choice. In the first 48 hours after same-sex weddings became legally possible in England and Wales, 95 ceremonies had taken place. The UK has now seen hundreds of thousands of proposals, engagements, weddings and marriages celebrated by same-sex couples. But the broader struggle continues – as does the task of transforming the institution.

New traditions

Having decided to marry, I knew I wanted a public celebration. A wedding. There is power and poignancy in publicly marking and rejoicing in relationships that have long been actively persecuted. Weddings provide moments of connection beyond the couple at the centre, out into your community at that moment and back through time as you retrace and relive the experiences and choices of generations before.

But planning my wedding was tricky. Waiting for the inevitable moment of misunderstanding in florists, venues and dress shops. She. “My fiancée is a woman.” Being asked which one is the bride. Who gets the engagement ring? Who is being given away? Without a groom, who gives the speech? We were moving in and out of tradition and managing clichés and other people’s assumptions. It was challenging – but liberating.

I didn’t wait to be proposed to. At my wedding, no one received someone else’s permission to kiss me. There was no question that a person might possess me enough to give me away. No one expected me to remain silent at my wedding breakfast. Today, following a decade of same-sex marriage, society is more accustomed to these kinds of changes. As more and more couples defy the default, gendered templates we inherit, the more absurd many of our outdated customs seem and the more free we can all feel from the pressures of expectations.

For example, in different-sex relationships, women are disproportionately expected to take on wedding planning. A top tip in a recent UK wedding magazine encouraged brides to “involve” their spouse-to-be. The idea of a man taking the lead role is so ridiculous to so many people that Don’t Tell the Bride remains an international reality TV franchise, inviting viewers to cringe at the entertaining choices of grooms-to-be.

A decade into same-sex marriage, the wedding industry has begun to respond to the new same-sex market and to open up in new ways. Meanwhile, men are pushing back on narrow, limiting definitions of what it means to be a groom, a husband and a man in a romantic relationship.

My wife and I began our marriage in a country in which women undertake 60 per cent more domestic labour than men – I’m a wife who feels the burden of that work no more than my spouse. My spouse enables, emboldens and empowers me in my career. At a time in which women take on more than twice as much childcare as men, my sacrifices for my children are no bigger than my coparent’s. Why should other brides and wives settle for less? Why should grooms and husbands be forced into roles defined and predestined for them?

As more and more young people reject gender binaries, bad habits are challenged and inherited assumptions are disrupted. Increasing numbers of Gen Zers identify as neither exclusively a man nor a woman: a 2021 Ipsos survey found that, globally, 4 per cent of Gen Zers identified as non-binary. New paths are being forged, new traditions continue to spring up, take root and grow.

It is time to let go of the baggage and the narrow expectations that can come with the designation “bride” or “groom”, “wife” or “husband”. In recent years, I have heard more wedding speeches delivered by brides, female friends, sisters and mothers. I attended a different-sex wedding in 2022 in which, in lieu of a giving-away ceremony for the bride, the guests were asked as one whether we gave our love and blessing to the couple. I have been a female usher in a wedding party with a male maid of honour. I have known slightly more married women to hold on to their name.

The struggle continues

A decade of same-sex marriage is a landmark moment. But the fight for equality for same-sex couples continues. Resistance to same-sex marriage persists across the UK today. Religious exemptions remain law, with most religious establishments refusing to perform or recognise same-sex weddings. In February of this year, the Church of England made steps towards LGBTQ+ inclusion by apologising for the harm it has caused to LGBTQ+ people, whilst also affirming that the Church’s doctrine of marriage – that it is between a man and a woman – remains unchanged.

Campaign groups like the Coalition for Marriage continue to oppose the rights of same-sex couples to access the institution. Senior figures in the Conservative party, such as Jacob Rees-Mogg, have continued to voice their opposition to marriages like mine following their legal recognition. I still so often introduce my wife, or the existence of my wife, to people who then refer to her as my partner, often straight after, in the same conversation. Like a correction. It feels like they have heard the queer bit and defaulted to “partner” – “wife” doesn’t quite sound right. It can all still feel very new.

In 2020, same-sex couples in Northern Ireland were finally able to join their neighbours elsewhere in the UK in celebrating marriage. But in British Overseas Territories, including the Cayman Islands, a colonial ban on same-sex marriage remains in place. As we celebrate this anniversary, we do so in a context of rising hate crimes and a dramatic rise in anti-trans rhetoric at the centre of political and public life.

Internationally, same-sex marriage remains far off for far too many, with same-sex relationships still actively criminalised in nearly 70 countries. Millions of people live exposed to the risk of arrest, potential imprisonment and in some places, the death penalty, for consensual same-sex relationships. Around the world, people live in fear of social, economic and religious reprisals for who they love. Recent years have seen an international mobilisation of extremist anti-LGBTQ+ groups. LGBTQ+ rights have been rolled back, and persecution stepped up, in countries from Uganda to the US.

In Italy, a country with no legal recognition of same-sex relationships, mothers’ names have begun to be removed from their children’s birth certificates after new legislation allowing only the biological parent of a child to be recognised. In 2023, children with two mothers have received new birth certificates through the post, with one of their parents’ names erased. The new policy, led by a government who campaigned heavily on an anti-LGBT ticket, also prevents two men from being registered as fathers of a child and limits the rights of the non-registered mother or father to parent their children. It’s painful to imagine my wife unrecognised, questioned and disputed as the mother of our children – having to seek permission to pick them up from school or nursery, and to access public services on their behalf.

Breaking the binary

History is not an inevitable march of progress. My marriage gives a level of security and stability to my family and provides us with unambiguous visibility, within even relatively conservative contexts, as just that – a family unit. But against a rise in LGBTQ+ hate, it can all still feel fragile. We must continue to challenge inherited ideas and assumptions of what a “traditional” marriage can look like. It’s important to remember our history.

Every populated continent saw widespread celebration of same-sex and queer marriages before European colonial powers began to violently repress such practices. Many of us grew up with narrow and binary ideas of what it means to be a husband or a wife. But nothing about marriage is inevitable, natural or fated, and there has never been a consensus as to how marriage should be defined. As I explore in my book Wedded Wife: A Feminist History of Marriage, marriage is and always has been what we choose to make of it.

There is still a long way to go. Access to same-sex marriage remains just one piece in a complex, and incomplete, puzzle of LGBTQ+ equality and justice. In the UK, further reforms are needed to achieve a fuller marriage equality. The ability of trans and nonbinary people to celebrate their relationships is limited in a context of political, social and legal persecution. Conversion therapy is practised in the UK today, to deter people from entering into same-sex relationships, with a promised ban nearly a decade overdue. In April this year, Sandi Toksvig and Stephen Fry joined the campaign to see humanist wedding ceremonies recognised in law in England and Wales (as they already are in Scotland and Northern Ireland), observing that humanist marriages are an LGBTQ+ rights issue.

Crucially, further government reforms are needed to support LGBTQ+ people persecuted across British Overseas Territories, the Commonwealth and international Anglican communities. Of the countries in which it is illegal to practice same-sex relationships, more than half were under British colonial control at some point in time. British colonial-era laws continue to persecute LGBTQ+ people around the world, placing them at risk of imprisonment, torture and death. Yet in September 2023, the home secretary declared that “simply being gay” in these places was not “sufficient to qualify for protection” within the UK. We celebrate a decade of same-sex marriages in England and Wales against this uncomfortable backdrop.

The 2013 Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act has built a significant legacy within the UK over the last 10 years. In 2011, fewer than half of Britons supported same-sex marriage; a recent YouGov poll showed that now three quarters do. As a person in a same-sex marriage, the 22 per cent who don’t support families like mine feels high. But the trajectory is promising. Hundreds of thousands of relationships have been newly celebrated and recognised. Couples across the UK are better able to embrace choice in marriage – in deciding whether to marry or not; in retaining traditions and practices that serve us; and in choosing to forge new ones where it is time to let go of bad habits.

In the face of LGBTQ+ oppressions and injustices our marriages remain radical, powerful statements. As we look forward to another decade of same-sex marriage, we can continue to redefine this most personal of public institutions through our very participation.

I grew up believing that marriage was something between a man and a woman. My children grow up knowing better.

This article is from New Humanist's winter 2023 issue. Subscribe now.