The Daily Express reported a wedding over Christmas. Nothing unusual about that, you might think, until you realise that it was the “marriage” of two men, Kieron Marshall and David Goodall. The Express’s interest in the story was that the “best woman” at the ceremony in Manchester was David’s ex-wife, Norma.
Of course, the ceremony was not really a marriage at all, it was simply a commitment ceremony accompanied by the signing of the partnership register that Manchester City Council has set up “in an attempt to pressure the government into giving gay and lesbian couples the same rights as straight couples” (as the paper put it).
Well, the pressure seems to be paying off. Just before Christmas, Barbara Roche, the minister responsible for equality, announced that the government intended to introduce a “civil partnership register” for same-sex couples which would give them many of the rights at present restricted to heterosexual married couples. Property, next-of-kin and inheritance rights will all be included.
But it would not constitute “gay marriage”.
The promise follows a ten-month, wide-ranging review by civil servants of all government departments. It is not clear yet, though, what precisely the new proposals will be; we have to wait for the official consultation document for that. But, The Guardian suggested that it would include: “the right to act as next of kin, allowing them to be consulted on treatment if a partner is unconscious or incapable of consenting; to register the partner’s death and to decide on funeral arrangements; the right to apply to court for provision if the relationship breaks down; right to inherit if partner dies without a will; exemption from inheritance tax on property inherited from a partner; survivorship benefits under partner’s pension scheme; right to claim damages if partner is killed through negligence on the part of someone else.”
Reaction to this from the papers was generally supportive. The Daily Mirror editorialised: “This sensible and compassionate step is long overdue. It will not – as critics allege – bring the institution of marriage crashing down… This is hardly a revolutionary move by Labour. It will merely bring Britain into line with many other European countries who changed their own laws years ago.”
The Guardian said: “It is a good thing that gay couples should be recognised to have deep relationships of love and commitment outside marriage.”
The Independent recalled an interview Mr Blair gave two years ago, when he was asked if he had any objections in principle to gay marriages. He replied: “I have no objection to people making a lifelong commitment to each other as many gay couples do. But it isn’t our policy to change the law.”
The paper took this to be an appeasing gesture to the “authoritarian right”, and suggested that Mr Blair was now safe to abandon it. “He should declare clearly that the existing law is unfair and discriminatory, and that people ought to have an equal right to make a ‘lifelong commitment’, which is of equal value in the eyes of the law. The proposal for ‘gay marriage’ – which is what it will be called, whatever Ms Roche or Mr Blair say – is an important step forward.”
Over in the “authoritarian press”, perhaps the most extreme and repulsive reaction came from Tom Utley in The Sunday Telegraph. Mr Utley wanted to know why, in its new proposals to reform the Victorian sex offences laws, the Government was repealing the law against buggery between people of the same sex, but not between people and animals. “Millions of voters, myself included, find the idea of bestiality pretty disgusting. But then, there are a great many people who find the idea of homosexual intercourse distasteful. By sucking up to one group and damning the other, the Government is using the statute book not as a means of promoting justice, but rather as an instrument for instructing us how we should think. It wants us to share New Labour’s enthusiasm for homosexuality, and its horror of bestiality. I cannot see much logic there, although it is surely no coincidence that the gay lobby makes an awful lot of noise and the zoosexuals keep an understandable silence.”
Mr Utley says that he doesn’t object to gay marriage – he just can’t take it seriously, because it isn’t like the ‘real thing’. “But, hey, let’s give it a whirl,” he says. “All I ask is that the Government should show a little consistency, and allow people to marry sheep, too, if they fancy the idea.”
Simon Heffer, one of The Daily Mail’s team of strange birds, objected in these terms: “What do homosexual couples do for the future of society that is comparable to the married family’s role of bringing up children, for which in turn the state provides them with tax, pension and inheritance privileges?”
This was answered by Steve Marsden in a letter to the editor: “Homosexual couples pay just as much in tax, being two ‘single’ people living together as a married couple, yet they do not present the state with children to educate or deplete the precious resources of an already overstretched health service. Nor do we claim any form of family allowance.”
There are other disadvantages for gay couples who might choose to register their partnerships. The Times told us that: “Unemployed gay couples would not fare so well…. Figures from the Department for Work and Pensions show that, under present rules, married and unmarried heterosexual couples cohabiting are entitled to £84.65 a week, while two single people living together would get £53.95 each, a total of £107.90. If they have responsibility for a child they would receive £179. 90 a week, including child benefit, compared with just £120.65 for a married or unmarried heterosexual couple.”
The other branch of the “authoritarian right” as represented by The Church of England Newspaper, said in its editorial: “The church needs to foster friendships of many kinds, as did Jesus. But it should not confuse friendship with marriage. A state institution specifically to foster and encourage gay sex as a permanent pattern of life could not be supported by apostolic churches, since such a pattern conflicts with God’s creative intention for the shaping of our sexual potentialities.” (Eh?)
Also on the right-wing is the Conservative Party, although it is difficult to know at the moment where it stands on this or anything else.
Almost as soon as the plans were announced by Barbara Roche, the Tory Shadow Home Secretary, Oliver Letwin, said on the Today programme that the Conservatives would support the legislation when it was introduced. “Whilst we attach a huge importance to the institution of marriage we do recognise that gay couples suffer from some serious particular grievances. If what the Government is coming forward with is indeed a set of practical steps to address a set of problems that affect people, then we will welcome them.”
It is not clear who the “we” is that Mr Letwin is referring to. Almost as soon as he had stopped speaking, prominent Tories Gerald Howarth and Anne Widdecombe let it be known that they did not consider themselves as part of the “we”.
Mr Howarth said that Labour was “out of kilter” with public opinion on the age of consent and other sexuality issues, and he said that the House of Lords – which is “much more representative than the House of Commons” – would block any such proposals to undermine marriage.
The Sun noticed that the new proposals would not extend to unmarried straight couples, and so made its headline: “Gays get more rights than straight couples.” Ms Roche replied that “Straight couples have the option of marriage.”
This decision to restrict the civil partnership option to gay couples seems to me quite sensible, but others are not convinced.
Peter Tatchell, for instance, was reported in The Daily Express as being in favour of including cohabiting straights. “It is divisive, unjust and discriminatory to exclude unmarried heterosexual couples,” he said. “I am very angry about the bias of this proposal. Cohabiting heterosexuals lack legal recognition and protection. My pick-and-mix model of partnership recognition, which also gives rights to nominated non-sexual friends, is a democratic, flexible alternative.”
Peter may have a point about other couples, same-sex or not, who are cohabiting in dependent relationships (the usual example given is two spinster sisters), but those straight couples who are living in what used to be called “common law marriages” really do have the option of signing up for something better than what is being offered to us.
Why on earth would they want to go to the register office and sign the civil partnership register when they could just as easily sign a marriage certificate, which would give them more and better rights?
Including cohabiting straight couples would just complicate the whole issue. After all, if someone came along and said to the average gay couple who were contemplating tying the knot: “There are two levels of registration, the inferior and the superior. They don’t cost any more than each other, which one would you like?” which do you think they would choose?
A much better use of our campaigning energies will be to try to improve what is being offered to us. After all, we are not going to get parity. For instance, it is not proposed to outlaw discrimination where public service pensions survivor benefits are restricted only to heterosexual spouses, and that’s something that will affect an awful lot of people. In fact, this discrimination is expected to be included in the new employment anti-discrimination regulations due out at the end of the year.
Presumably we aren’t being given full equality because the government is afraid of (or accepts as true) the idea being put about by religious objectors that giving gay couples equal rights would “undermine marriage” in some way.
The arch proponent of this idea is, of course, the Christian Institute. Its director, Colin Hart, was widely reported as saying: “If the special benefits of marriage are given to those in homosexual relationships, then marriage becomes devalued.”
What Mr Hart means, I think, is that Christian marriage becomes devalued. Despite the fact that the new Archbishop of Canterbury says that he can “see a case for acknowledging faithful same-sex relationships”, it is unlikely that the churches will ever open up their doors to same-sex knot-tying.
But that doesn’t matter. We don’t need their approval in order to have equality. Tens of thousands of heterosexual couples are legally married every year without “benefit of clergy” – they just go down the registry office and sign up. Why do we have to sign a different register?
Darren Hackett touched on this important point when he wrote to The Guardian: “If a gay person is equal it means that he or she has the same rights as others. The proposals are not equality: they are a new set of ‘special’ civil procedures. This is not acceptable in equality terms. I checked with Huddersfield registrar’s office and was told there was no religious element to the civil marriage ceremony. So what is the problem with giving equal rights to gay men and lesbians to have a civil ceremony with equality? The problem is homophobia.”
So, given that we aren’t pushing the churches to stop being bigoted and excluding, what is the problem with the Government simply opening up the ordinary marriage registration procedure to gay couples?
Of course, the spectre at all these joyous nuptial festivities is divorce. It’s a big issue for heterosexuals with vast numbers of their marriages breaking up every year. It is also going to be an issue for gay people. We have yet to see what the government is proposing in the way of dissolving these civil partnerships.
John Henderson wrote to The Independent: “Unmarried heterosexual partners have the option of choosing to marry, provided of course, that they are not already married to someone else. I assume that the proposed registration by homosexual partners will require similar uniqueness. I suspect many choose not to marry because the legal benefits are outweighed by the approach of the Courts to the financial aspects of divorce. Perhaps similar problems will dog the break-up of these newly recognised relationships.”
The government has a difficult task ahead if it is going to get this right. But our starting point should be that we are not prepared to accept second best – again!