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'Tie the knot or break the chains'

Report of a debate on “gay marriage” at CHE’s 2011 Annual Conference, at the Soho Centre for Health & Care, 1 Frith Street, London W1D 3HZ, Sunday 4th July 2011

Ian Stewart and Peter TatchellIan Stewart, charing the meeting, introduced our two guest speakers, Peter Tatchell (long-term gay and human rights campaigner) and Andrew Lumsden, one of the founders of the Gay Liberation Front and of Gay News, to lead a debate and discussion about “gay marriage”.

Peter Tatchell began by paying tribute to CHE for all the work we have done and can be proud of over many years. He wished us many more decades of campaigning.

Peter said that the ban on gay marriage was an example of discrimination, driven by homophobia, that ought to be ended. It sends a message that gay people are second class citizens. Last week he had been in New York with about 3,000 people at the Stonewall Inn, celebrating New York State’s passing of a bill to introduce gay marriage. Civil partnerships are essentially civil marriage by another name, and have redressed virtually all the injustices (with an exception in the case of pensions). But they are still separate, and separate is never equal. The Equal Love Campaign has adopted the policy of not seeking to change either marriage or civil partnership, but making both available to straight and gay couples alike. As part of this campaign, eight couples have filed an application on human rights grounds, to which the Government has to respond by next February: the European Court is likely to rule in our favour. In 2009, 61% of people thought that civil partnership doesn’t go far enough, and marriage equality has wide political support, except from David Cameron and George Osborne. Peter urged everyone to sign the online petition at equallove.org.uk.

However Peter admitted that gay marriage is not the most pressing of issues, and was never on the GLF agenda. Many people are in any case suspicious of the whole institution of marriage, which was originally all about protection of property and the sexual control of women. He personally wouldn’t want to get married. It’s interesting that among heterosexual couples, the number getting married is at its lowest since the 1890s. Peter proposed that there should be a new model of relationships, with a “civil commitment pact” allowing anyone to designate a partner, friend, or any significant other, or perhaps more than one, as next of kin, and choose from a menu of rights and responsibilities. This would give rights to single people, not just couples, and make people think more about the commitments they were entering into.

Andrew LumsdenAndrew Lumsden also paid tribute to CHE; when he and others had formed the idea of producing a paper with high standards that people would be willing to pay for, the help of CHE’s Glenys Parry had been crucial. Allowing Gay News to be distributed to the CHE membership had enabled it to be produced as an influential paper for ten years.

Andrew agreed with much of what Peter had said. Like Peter, Andrew was not anxious to get married. The status of marriage is in any case declining, as happens when women have freedom. But in the current climate, with on-going situations like California’s Proposition 8 (to stop gay marriage) we can’t be seen to oppose gay marriage although we may have reservations about it. Nothing is more endearing than to see young people in love. Some people, like a young lesbian couple Andrew had met on a coach trip, would definitely benefit from the status and protection that gay marriage would bring. Andrew would like to see a time when we could be gracious to straight people – when we would be able to choose marriage and give it back to them, as an honorific to those who raise children. Maybe it shows a lack of confidence that we want to have everything that others have got. In some cases gay people are better off than straight people: there have been cases where straight couples have been pressurised into getting married, by employers, or to get health benefits in the USA. In the past there was “gay privilege”: if you were an aristocrat you could get away with living as openly gay when it was illegal. Now everyone wants the privileges. Marriage is often just an excuse for a big party.

Ian BuistIan Buist commented that civil partnership differs from marriage in three ways only: the pensions point, the absence of any presumption of sex between the parties (hence no need for “consummation” and no “adultery” as grounds for divorce), and that registration can’t take place in religious premises or contain any religious content. Lord Alli’s amendment does away with the ban on religious buildings, which will largely obliterate the great inequality. It’s clear that if we had been campaigning for gay marriage when civil partnerships were introduced we would never have got it through Parliament. So we now have the substance of full marriage, with the added advantage of no sex presumption. The parity of status between marriage and civil partnership mustn’t be endangered.

Peter Scott-Presland commented that although marriage and civil partnership are almost identical in law, for immigrants to this country the difference can seem immense. People from other countries just don’t think civil partnerships are as good. Also UK civil partnerships are not recognised in any other country. Countries such as Canada which have their own gay marriages don’t recognise civil partnerships, but would recognise UK gay marriages if we had them.

Some points raised in discussion:

  • How can marriage really be equal, when it’s based on one person owning another?
  • Stag nights increasingly include men being dressed by women in women’s clothes: perhaps an example of boundaries between gay and straight breaking down.
  • Should marriage be strictly monogamous? – in practice this has never applied to men.
  • The vast majority of couples taking up the French PACS, and the Dutch equivalent, are straight.

 

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