My brother married recently. It was a lovely afternoon, and thrilling to see the two of them looking so happy, but what touched me most was something he said in his speech.
You see, marriage isn’t a big thing in my close family, and when pressed—ever so gently—on the matter, my brother and his girlfriend had always brushed off suggestions that they might get married, so it came as a wonderful surprise when they announced their engagement. And then, on his wedding day, my brother explained that, yes, they had never seen much attraction in marriage until I, his brother, married my partner Peer. This, he said, was what showed him that marriage still had a relevance today, and this was a tipping point in their decision to get engaged.
Of course, Peer and I didn’t actually get married. We couldn’t. Instead we entered into a civil partnership. But we have always spoken of each other as husbands, and have always referred to the day as our wedding, even if that wasn’t strictly true, and it was lovely to feel that our example, far from undermining the institution of marriage, had lent it contemporary relevance to a mixed-sex couple who might otherwise have been happy to continue cohabiting.
Today, however, the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act received royal assent, and soon we will be able to have a proper, legally recognised marriage, rather than a next-best civil partnership.
But I’m not celebrating.
First, there is the disgraceful way this legislation has thrown trans* people under the bus, and while I am pleased that I may personally gain something from the act, I cannot in good faith celebrate something that disregards the rights of a more marginalised group of people. It is fantastic that gay rights have progressed to this point, but saddening that those of our trans* friends lag so far behind.
Then there is the way that this act retains the gender-specificity of previous legislation: rather than removing references to ‘a man and a woman’ in previous legislation, this act simply makes additional references to ‘a same-sex couple’.
But there are some remarks by Helen Grant, in the discussion of the spousal veto on Gender Recognition Certificates, that add to the disquiet I feel about this.
On 21 May, Grant said:
It must be remembered that a marriage is contracted between two people who should have an equal say in the future of that marriage. We consider that it would be unfair to remove the right of every non-trans spouse to have a say in the future of their marriage before gender recognition takes place. 21 May 2013 : Column 1146
The implication here is that if one spouse is granted a Gender Recognition Certificate, the nature of their marriage changes, and that is why the other spouse’s consent is needed. In other words, a marriage between a man and a woman is not the same as a same-sex marriage, and the two are so distinct that someone should have a veto over their partner’s self-realisation to protect them from slipping from one form of marriage to the other.
What this means is that, far from opening up the existing institution of marriage to same-sex couples, we are in fact creating a new institution, also called ‘marriage’, in many ways interchangeable, but still different enough to merit the insertion of the spiteful spousal veto into this act. Funny enough, this is pretty much what civil partnership did, and that its lack of equivalence led to the campaign for same-sex marriage.
So no, I don’t feel we have achieved true equality. I don’t believe we will have achieved that until we can get marriage redefined in truly gender-agnostic terms as a union between two persons, with none of these weasel mentions of gender or insinuations that one configuration might be less desirable than another. In the mean time, I will recognise the passing of this act into law as an incremental step towards equality, but not the glorious triumph that some would claim.