This is a guest blog post by Alison Burt. Alison is a partner at Covent Garden Family Law and specialises in children cases.
Why you should care about same-sex marriage
I am not sentimental when it comes to the question of marriage – few family lawyers are, unsurprisingly. Weddings tend to make me grumpy rather than weepy: all that standing around in uncomfortable clothes, too much drink and not enough food, never-ending speeches and cringe-making first dances.
But I do care, desperately, about the right to marriage for all, regardless of sexuality. I think you should, too, and here are some reasons why.
Let’s start with civil partnership, and the suggestion that it is ‘ good enough’, rather in the Winnicott sense – not perfect, but serviceable. I’d be the first to agree that civil partnerships and the accompanying legislative amendments represented tremendous progress and have brought huge benefits. In practical terms there are only a very few distinctions between the status of civil partners and married couples and there can’t be many couples affected by those differences , eg the fact that the civil partner of a peer is not entitled to the same honorary title as a spouse. And of course there are many countries which haven’t evolved as far as we have, and which don’t have civil partnership and where there is horrific discrimination and even persecution of gay men and lesbians.
But the point about civil partnership is that it is a fudge, a compromise in terms of classification and nomenclature, which enabled the government at the time to provide the rights and responsibilities of marriage for same sex couples without allowing access to the inner sanctum that is marriage. Civil partnership is defined by what it’s not, rather like ‘Utterly Butterly’ versus real butter.
Why does it matter? Because the entire structure of civil partnership is a constant reminder that same sex couples cannot choose to get married and cannot use the same words in their ceremonies. When couples are making a lifelong commitment, the words they use are important. Of course couples can and often do write their own vows but there is no escaping the clumsy language of civil partnership when compared to ‘wife’ and husband’.
Well, you may think, this is all rather semantic and surely doesn’t make much difference in real life? I think it does. It’s easy to assume that we no longer live in a homophobic society, but we do. Homophobic crime appears to be on the rise. Stonewall’s 2009 report showed that homophobic bullying is still a huge problem in both primary and secondary schools. My seven year old has come home upset and confused because children in her class are using ‘gay’ as an insult; they may not know what it means, but she knows it means me. When our daughter was born and when my partner was ill I had to explain our relationship repeatedly to hospital staff and deal with the raised eyebrows and muttering that followed. None of this is life threatening, granted, but it is embarrassing and upsetting. Again, words matter. When you put the apartheid that is marriage versus civil partnership into that context, the distinction looks much less benign.
A common response from the opponents of gay marriage is that it would undermine historical precedent. I was particularly taken aback by the response of Lord Brennan in the Telegraph (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/relationships/9140790/Gay-marriage-Eight-centuries-of-law-obliterated-overnight.html). Any lawyer, particularly someone of his eminence, will recognise the extent to which the law on marriage has played catch up with changing mores. We now allow married women to own property, and rape within marriage is unlawful. The law is not set in stone and never has been: history has never been a valid justification for discrimination.
What really exposes the extent of the bigotry that gay people face are the recent responses from religious groups to this government’s proposals. Same-sex marriage has been compared to condoning paedophilia and bestiality in astonishingly apocalyptic and offensive language. It is pretty clear from the response of, for example, the Catholic Church that it continues to see gay men and lesbians as a threat to society.
Even the generally mild –mannered Church of England has taken an aggressive stance. The Bishop of Leicester, Tim Stevens, has said that allowing same sex couples to marry would leave the institution of marriage ‘hollowed out’ and reduced to a ‘consumerist’ and ‘content-free’ agreement. The Church of England describes the possibility of gay marriage as the biggest threat it has faced for 500 years, at the same time as purporting to offer support to the gay community.
The message is clear: we should be grateful for what we’ve got, and not expect to be offered the same opportunities as heterosexuals. We should accept that our relationships are worth less that straight relationships and for that reason must bear a different label.
Because what it really comes down to is the only possible reason for opposition to gay marriage: that gay sex is wrong. Not just wrong, but icky and corrupting and offensive. Marriage is much less about procreation than the validation of sex, taking desire and putting it into a format which society and religion can accept. Most opponents to gay marriage are so obsessed with the implications of society validating gay relationships and gay sex that they forget what it is that gay couples want from marriage, which is exactly the same as everybody else: a public show of commitment, a celebration of enduring love, and a state-sanctioned format in which to grow old together and raise their children.
I support the couples who want to do that, even if I am unlikely to be weeping in the aisles. What is even more important in my view is the message that we need to send. By supporting gay marriage, you are saying that gay relationships have the same worth as straight ones. You will be telling the people who see us as a threat to children that they are wrong, and the churches that they are out of step with the rest of society. I hope this post will have persuaded you that that does need to be said.
Today is the last day to respond to the government’s consultation. For anyone still in doubt, here is a graphic demonstration of the likely consequences of gay marriage: