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Monday, February 28, 2011

End in sight for UK gay marriage ban?

By matthanley -

Reports on the death of the gay marriage ban may not have been greatly exaggerated after all, reports Matt Hanley.

A British case going before European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) may be about to wipe the last major homophobic piece of legislation from the UK statute books.
It all started when eight couples – four gay and four straight – each walked into their local marriage license office to have their love recognised by the state, only to be turned away because of their gender and sexuality.
The four gay couples each applied to their respective town halls for a marriage license, while the straight couples applied for a civil partnership.
Unsurprisingly, all eight were promptly rejected
So, in February this year, the couples filed a joint legal application to the ECHR, asking the Court to declare illegal the twin bans on same-sex civil marriages and opposite-sex civil partnerships in the United Kingdom. This new civil rights campaign was named ‘Equal Love’, coordinated and supported by the Peter Tatchell Foundation.
The Equal Love project is thus campaigning to overturn the legal restrictions on gay marriage and straight-sex civil partnerships alike.
There is absolutely no religious connotation to the campaign; religious institutions are not being forced to hold gay marriages. A religious marriage, held in a church, is simply an add-on to civil marriage, which can take place anywhere you can find an official registrar (parachuting from a plane and blessed by Elvis, if that’s your thing). Marriage equality is about equality under the law, so the religious, superstitious and dogmatic should simply keep out of a debate that doesn’t concern them.
On the 13th February the Sunday Times, not noted for getting its facts wrong, announced with some fanfare that the following Thursday would see the coalition government finally, finally, announce plans to overturn the ban on gays getting married.
But, alas. The anticipated announcement by Liberal Democrat Equalities Minister Lynne Featherstone merely ruled on the end of the ban on places of worship conducting civil partnerships. Marriage equality was hoofed into the long grass with a vague promise to look at steps to open a consultation on allowing LGBT marriage (and straight people to enter civil partnerships). This pitiful and miserly scrap was all that the Lib Dems could beg from the Tory top table.
So gay couples are still banned from marrying, and heterosexual couples still banned from the institution of civil partnerships. The Civil Partnership Act 2004 was designed to give gay partnerships a half-arsed legitimacy in order to satisfy LGBT equality campaigners on the one hand and, on the other, the demands of the Church and other homophobes. However, the creation of civil partnerships has merely led to a form of gross sexual apartheid. It basically says that there is one law for straight people, and another for gays.
Far from equality, the Civil Partnership Act reinforces and perpetuates discrimination. It ensures that LGBT people are kept classified as the ‘other’.
For instance, although very similar in terms of legality, the official terminology of civil partnerships reduces their status in comparison to marriage. A couple get married – gays enter a civil partnership. A marriage can end in divorce – a civil partnership is coldly ‘dissolved’. A married couple refer to each other as ‘spouse’ or ‘husband’ and ‘wife’, the latter words created specifically in recognition of this union –  a gay couple must still refer to each other as merely a ‘partner’.
If a university had a policy where male professors were referred to as ‘Professor’, but female professors had to settle for ‘Senior Lecturer’, we as a society would rightly condemn it as gross discrimination.
Similarly, outlawing black or Jewish people from getting married would provoke uproar. The prohibition on gay marriages should cause similar outrage. It is telling that it doesn’t.
The decision by Lynne Featherstone is all the more disappointing in view of the broad public and political support for marriage equality. In a 2009 Populus poll, 61% of the public said they would support gay marriage.
The Greens, Liberal Democrats and Labour have leaders who are in favour of full LGBT marriage equality. Both the Green Party (RR506) and Liberal Democrats have gay marriage and civil partnership equality as official party policy.
As for the Tories, London Mayor Boris Johnson has made positive mumbling noises in the past. The Conservatives’ 2010 pre-election Equalities Manifesto even promised to ‘consider’ the case for full gay marriage should they win office. However, since becoming Prime Minister, David Cameron appears to have considered it, mulled it over carefully, weighed up the pros and cons, and then backtracked as fast as his backbenchers could chase him.
A brief aside: while speaking on marriage equality at the 2010 Lib Dem conference, Ben Summerskill, the chief executive of Stonewall, the largest LGBT campaign group in the UK, was reported to have said he was opposed to gay marriage equality because it could cost the country £5bn.
The Greens, Liberal Democrats, Labour and even some of the Conservatives are all for gay marriage, but it is just for the main campaigning organisation for gay people in the UK that this isn’t OK? Since when was it acceptable to put a price-tag on equality, civil rights or, indeed, love?
To escape the furious backlash, Summerskill announced that the next annual Stonewall supporter consultation paper would ask whether gay marriage should be a future campaigning priority. The promised consultation was heavily criticised by the LGBT community when the question of gay marriage was found to be confusingly worded and buried deep down in the lengthy paper.
Thankfully, however, not all LGBT campaign groups have been so laissez-faire about the fight for equality.
The British Government might have to respond to the Equal Love case (Ferguson & Others vs United Kingdom) within the next 12 months.
If the Equal Lovers win, the UK will follow the Netherlands (who else?), Canada (the Province of Quebec) and South Africa in allowing straight and gay couples the choice of either marriage or civil partnerships. If successful, the ruling could well have a marriage equality domino effect in other EU countries.
But ultimately it means that maybe, within the next two or three years, in Britain, two people in love can simply get married, regardless of gender or sexual preference.
And how wonderful is that?


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