Gay marriage bill is not full equality

Some homophobic discrimination will remain

 London – 21 May 2013

“While the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill is a welcome advance towards equal marriage, it is not full equality. The legislation has a number of shortcomings that sustain discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) couples,” said Peter Tatchell, coordinator of the Equal Love campaign, which has spearheaded the movement for same-sex civil marriages and opposite-sex civil partnerships.

“Instead of bringing same-sex couples fully within the ambit of existing marriage law, the bill leaves some aspects of marriage law different for gay and straight married couples. Although these are relatively minor, they violate the fundamental principle of marriage equality for all.

“The 1949 Marriage Act is the UK’s main marriage law. It does not stipulate that marriage partners have to be male and female. This requirement is only three decades old. Prior to the early 1970s, there was no ban on same-sex marriage. It was de facto legal. The prohibition was introduced in response to the emergence of the gay liberation movement and the fear that a lack of legal impediment would allow transgender and same-sex couples to marry.

“Marriage between two people of the same gender is outlawed under the Matrimonial Causes Act 1973. The repeal of this legislation would make same-sex marriage legal again under the 1949 Act.

“Unfortunately, the government bill includes various different rules for LGBT marriages. For married heterosexuals, non-consummation and adultery with an opposite-sex partner are grounds for annulment or divorce according to the 1949 Act. Under the current bill, however, non-consummation does not invalidate a same-sex marriage and adultery with a person of the same gender is not grounds for divorce. While this may be a progressive reform of marriage legislation, it makes the law unequal. If we want marriage equality, that’s what the bill should give.

“With regard to pension schemes and inheritance on the death of a spouse, the bill does not grant LGBT married couples the same entitlements as married heterosexuals. It allows companies to limit same-sex spousal pension payouts to post-2005 contributions only, even if the deceased partner had been paying into their pension since 1970. This perpetuates the pension inequalities enshrined in civil partnership law, which some of us have long campaigned against.

“For me, the campaign for same-sex marriage has always been premised on the principle of equality, rather than support for marriage per se. I’m no great fan of wedlock. I share the feminist critique and would not want to get married.

“Indeed, I’ve proposed a radical alternative to marriage – a civil commitment pact – where a person can nominate as next-of-kin and beneficiary any ‘significant other’ in their life and where a couple can select from a menu of rights and responsibilities to create a partnership agreement tailor-made to suit their own particular needs. Given the huge variety of modern relationships and lifestyles, this flexible system of relationship recognition is much more appropriate than the one-size-fits-all model of marriage and civil partnerships.

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“Despite my preference for this alternative, for 21 years I’ve also championed the right of LGBT couples to marry.

“Together with my colleagues in the queer rights group OutRage!, in 1992 I organised five same-sex couples to file applications for civil marriage at Westminster register office. There was a comical moment when the horrified registrar realised the 1949 Act does not prohibit same-sex marriage. We had a mischievous giggle while she made a panicked phone call to the Home Office. The registrar was eventually informed, to her relief, that the prohibition is covered by the 1973 Act.

“The current push for marriage equality was begun by the Equal Love campaign. In February 2011, it sponsored four gay couples and four straight couples to file a joint application to the European Court of Human Rights. Drafted by Professor Robert Wintemute of Kings College London, it seeks to overturn the twin bans on same-sex civil marriages and opposite-sex civil partnerships. Three months after this case was launched, David Cameron agreed to support a review of the ban on LGBT marriage, which resulted in the current bill.

“Regrettably, although David Cameron supports marriage equality, he opposes the legalisation of heterosexual civil partnerships. His Conservative backbench critics are the exact opposite: they support equal civil partnerships but oppose the right of LGBT people to marry. Both are inconsistent.

“Banning same-sex marriage is homophobic discrimination and such discrimination is wrong. I resent being told that I’m not allowed to marry because I am gay. I want to be able to choose – and refuse. In a democracy, everyone should be equal before the law. This includes the right of same-sex couples to marry and be just as happy – or miserable – as married heterosexuals,” said Mr Tatchell.

Peter Tatchell is Director of the human rights organisation, the Peter Tatchell Foundation.

Note 1
According to the YouGov poll published in June 2012, 71% of the public, including 58% of religious people, believe that same-sex couples should be permitted to get married in civil ceremonies register offices. 70% of the public also support religious institutions being allowed to conduct same-sex marriages if they wish to do so.
See the YouGov poll result in full: