Chris Ashford, Reader in Law and Society at the University of Sunderland analyses the Marriage (Same sex Couples) Bill for PinkNews and argues that despite first appearances, it isn’t the final piece of the jigsaw to achieving gay equality.
There are those who suggest that that the publication of the Marriage (Same Sex couples) Bill marks a simple step towards the end of a journey for gay rights.
With a 56 page Bill, and 48 pages of additional guidance notes, it might be many things but simple it isn’t. The Government’s claim that this is a simple change to legislation is in fact rather misleading. The Bill makes significant changes to welfare and pension provision, and also impacts upon other pieces of legislation relating to adoption, inheritance, employment, gender recognition and the existing institution of Civil Partnerships.
The focus of much media speculation has been upon protecting the Church of England from Human Rights challenges, and the Bill seems pretty well drafted in terms of ensuring those protections. However, it seems rather amiss when it comes to Civil Partnerships – which remain exclusively for same-sex couples. A legal challenge by different-sex couples looks inevitable and likely to eventually succeed.
The act of consummation is deemed not applicable as a voidable ground (whereby you essentially argue that a marriage never really existed as you didn’t consummate it with a sexual act) for same-sex marriage but remains in place for different-sex couples. Civil Servants it seemed just couldn’t figure out how to define the sexual act for same-sex couples. Sex is however contemplated for same-sex couples, via the provision of the Matrimonial Causes Act which allows for a marriage to be voidable if a partner was suffering from a communicable venereal disease.
Whilst the Bill does change the meaning of marriage and terms such as ‘widow’ in some contexts present and historic, and all future contexts, it does not change all historic understandings. Take for example the hypothetical Will by Great Uncle Bob who dies. He leaves his entire wealth to you, provided that you are married. That use of the word (assuming Great Uncle Bob wrote his Will before this law comes into force) only applies to a ‘heterosexual’ understanding of marriage.
The broader conversation beyond these regulatory specifics is upon the idea of ‘an end of journey’. Stonewall emailed supporters on the morning the Bill was published, describing it as ‘a modest measure which will complete the legislative jigsaw for gay people’. So, that’s it folks. Mission accomplished.
Of course, there are other battles to be fought – homophobic bullying in schools for instance, which Stonewall has been commendably active with – but the leading gay rights campaigning group of England and Wales has declared the legislative fight over with. Yet, I can’t help feeling it has eerie echoes of George W Bush and that famous arrival on an aircraft carrier in 2003 to declare the war in Iraq over. Stonewall boss Ben Summerskill is already in his flight suit. The bunting is up. Mission accomplished.
What then does this apparent victory look like? It looks like being ‘normal’, being the ‘same’ as the dominant heterosexual majority, or at least, a fantasy image of that majority.
We will aspire to a monogamous, state-sanctioned relationship. We’ll aspire to have children, raising them (presumably somewhere in Islington or possibly Shoreditch) and lead a productive civilised existence. Rip up the Chariots membership card, stop those group-sex shenanigans and embrace normality.
Legislative victory should not mean identity erasure. There remain numerous sexual freedoms to campaign on – yes sexual – that’s what gay rights is about, not merely a civil rights campaign – and there are battles still to be won. Battles relating to pornography, the continued criminalisation of consensual sexual acts, re-constructing our ideas of relationships in relation to sex, monogamy and the illusion that only ‘couples’ might want to enter into a state-sanctioned partnership, are just a handful which spring to mind.
The marriage Bill should be welcomed, but it is not the end of the journey, or the final piece in a jigsaw. It is just another step – albeit a significant one- on a never-ending journey.
Chris Ashford is a Reader in Law and Society at the University of Sunderland.
As with all comment articles, the views within this article do not necessarily reflect those of PinkNews.co.uk