The PinkNews Guide to the history of England and Wales equal marriage
Although we are now drawing to a close for the final decision regarding the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill in England and Wales, UK marriage equality has had a longstanding history.
Stretching as far back to the 1960s, before the Bill could even be thought possible, the lobbying for gay and lesbian equality has been fought both tooth and nail throughout the decades.
The following PinkNews History of England and Wales Marriage equality aims to highlight just a part of the rich and diverse history of this campaign, tracing those individuals both in opposition and in favour of the Bill, as well as the expansive surrounding history of LGBT equality that has since snowballed into the climactic turning point we are today witnessing for civil justice.
To begin, however, a brief history of marriage itself:
Where did it all begin?
1949 was the year the Marriage Act first lawfully defined marriages as the union between a man and a woman.
At this time, it was not even conceivable to think to actively exclude those who would want a same-sex union. In fact, it was not until 1971 that another Bill, the Nullity of Marriage Act, emerged to legally prohibit same-sex couples from marrying altogether.
Earlier back, nevertheless, 1866 was the year that introduced the very idea of the opposite-sex marriage definition in the first place.
In the case of Hyde v. Hyde and Woodmansee, which was a polygamy trial, the judgment of Lord Penzance ruled: “Marriage as understood in Christendom is the voluntary union for life of one man and one woman, to the exclusion of all others.”
In 1889 The Cleveland Street scandal occurred, which was the case of a police raid on a London gay brothel, where a number of aristocratic clients were arrested including Lord Arthur Somerset. The Prince of Wales’s son Prince Albert Victor and Lord Euston were also part of the scandal.
In 1895 Oscar Wilde was tried for gross indecency for his relationship with Lord Alfred Douglas, and was sentenced to two years in prison with hard labour.
Tracing these artefacts of history, it is easy to think today about how far we might have come, and about how bizarre the world back then would have seemed to those of us privileged to be living now.
But the fight for an equal definition of marriage is a history fraught with obstacles. It was not an easy path to progress. It was an uphill climb with as many losses, tragedies, and heartbreaks as there were triumphs.
The following history starts in 1967, where “Homosexual Acts” were first legally decriminalised in England and Wales. It is from here perhaps, that our path towards real civil equality first laid its slight yet crucial groundwork.
1967 ‘Homosexual acts’ decriminalised
Following trials stemming from as far back as ten years, 1967 marked the passing of the Sexual Offences Act which decriminalised male “homosexual acts” in England and Wales.
At the end of 1954, in England and Wales, there were 1,069 gay men in prison for homosexual acts, with an average age of 37. Lesbians at the time were not actively criminalised.
In order to curb these rising figures, one Labour MP, Leo Abse, and a Conservative peer, Lord Arran, put forward proposals to humanise the way in which UK law treated gay men by the Sexual Offences Bill.
In 1967 the Labour Government finally showed support for Lord Arran’s proposals. At this time, it was widely viewed that criminal law should not further penalise gay men for their sex lives, given that were already the object of ridicule socially.
Roy Jenkins, who was Home Secretary at the time, said: “Those who suffer from this disability carry a great weight of shame all their lives.”
The Bill received Royal assent on 27 July 1967 after an intense late night debate in the House of Commons. Margaret Thatcher was one of the few Tory MPs at the time to vote in favour of its passing.
Lord Arran, in an attempt to curb criticisms that the legislation would lead to further public debate and visibility of issues relating to homosexual civil rights, including equal marriage, made the following statement:
“I ask those [homosexuals] to show their thanks by comporting themselves quietly and with dignity…any form of ostentatious behaviour now or in the future or any form of public flaunting would be utterly distasteful…[And] make the sponsors of this Bill regret that they had done what they had done.”
The 1967 Act did not extend to Scotland, Northern Ireland, the Channel Islands or the Isle of Man, where all male homosexual behaviour remained illegal.
The privacy restrictions of the Act meant a third person could not be present and that gay men could not have sex in a hotel. These restrictions were overturned in the European Court of Human Rights in 2000.
Peter Tatchell in his 1992 book “Europe in The Pink” argued that the legislation led to an increase in prosecutions against homosexual men.
1970 Gay Liberation Front founded
The Gay Liberation Front (GLF) was a name given to a number of gay liberation groups, the first of which was formed in New York City in 1969, immediately after the Stonewall riots, in which police clashed with gay and trans demonstrators.
In the United Kingdom, the GLF had its first meeting in the basement of the London School of Economics (LSE) on 13 October 1970, and by 1971, the group was already holding weekly meetings of up to 300 people.
The GLF published its own manifesto shortly after, and a series of high-profile political interventions soon followed.
One notable example was the disruption of the launch of the church-based morality campaign, “Festival of Light”, in which groups of GLF members in drag invaded and spontaneously kissed each other.
The GLF Manifesto read: “We do not intend to ask for anything. We intend to stand firm and assert our basic rights. If this involves violence, it will not be we who initiate this, but those who attempt to stand in our way to freedom.”
By 1974, disagreements among the group had led to the movement’s splintering. Organisations that came out of this divide included the London Lesbian and Gay Switchboard, Gay News, and Icebreakers.
The Leicester group founded by Jeff Martin also set up the local “Gayline”, which is still active today and has received funding from the National Lottery.
Several members of the GLF, including Peter Tatchell, continued campaigning beyond the 1970s under the banner of OutRage! which still exists today, using similar tactics such as performance protests to attract media interest and political controversy.
1971-1973 Nullity of Marriage Act and Matrimonial Causes Act
Although the definition of marriage was already defined as between a man and a woman in the Marriage Act of 1949, it was not until 1971 that the Government finally introduced the “Nullity of Marriage Act” explicitly banning same-sex marriages between gay and lesbian couples in England and Wales.
The 1971 Nullity of Marriage Act, because it was the first act to prohibit same-sex unions explicitly, would have made it possible for marriages to be annulled if the partners were not opposite-sex.
Although this Act was in fact repealed, its provisions were again reiterated by the 1973 Matrimonial Causes Act, which is still in force today, and has formed the basis for same-sex marriage legislation.
During this time, Maureen Colquhoun also came out as the first lesbian MP for the Labour Party. When elected she was in a heterosexual marriage. After coming out, her party refused to support her.
1992 Peter Tatchell and Outrage! challenge same-sex marriage ban
In 1992, the former Gay Liberation Front (GLF) member Peter Tatchell, together with colleagues and members of the newly formed OutRage! organised the first challenge to the ban on same-sex civil marriage.
As part of the campaign, five same-sex couples filed marriage licence applications at Westminster Register Office in London on 19 March.
Although they were refused, Peter notes that this was the “opening shot in the long campaign for equal marriage.”
(credit: Stephen Mayes / OutRage!)
OutRage! was first founded in 1990. Although it has been a controversial group throughout its time, criticised in the past for “outing” closeted individuals and supporting “racist” ideals, Outrage! still remains a politically active group to this day.
2004 Civil Partnerships Act
The Civil Partnership Act was passed in 2004 by the then Labour Government, giving same-sex couples the same rights and responsibilities as married opposite sex couples in England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales.
Civil Partnerships were first introduced by the Liberal MP Lord Lester in 2002. It was later adopted into Government legislation under Tony Blair in 2004.
Although the Civil Partnerships Act was a surefire step forward for same-sex marriage bill legislation, this is of course only clear today in retrospect.
2004 was the same year that Spain had introduced its own same-sex marriage bill, and yet many were still uncertain as to where this idea of civil partnerships left UK lesbian and gay couples in terms of equality.
It was twelve years after OutRage! had first campaigned for the right of equal marriage, and while many LGBT organisations were ready to accept the Civil Partnerships option, Peter Tatchell and his colleagues continued their campaign for real marriage equality.
“We said that Civil partnerships were an important advance,” Tatchell writes, “but not good enough.”
At the time, the Bill was backed by the Labour Party, the Liberal Democrats, and Plaid Cymru. Conservative Party MPs were split on the issue, and the party leadership did not take a particular stance on the Bill, instead allowing its MPs a free vote.
This decision was described by some in the British media as an attempt to demonstrate a shift to a more inclusive, centrist approach under the leadership of Michael Howard, and as a departure from the alleged active opposition to LGBT rights under the leadership of Iain Duncan Smith.
Conservative MPs split 67 in favour to 37 against at the Second Reading, and 43 in favour to 39 against at the Third Reading.
High-profile Conservative MPs who voted against the Civil Partnerships Bill included Iain Duncan Smith, Ann Widdecombe, Bob Spink and Peter Lilley.
Those who voted in favour included David Cameron, George Osborne and party leader Michael Howard. Around 30 Conservative MPs did not participate in any of the votes.
2005 PinkNews founded
Benjamin Cohen wrote that when PinkNews.co.uk was first founded in 2005, it was not entirely clear how the news site should approach the topic of same-sex Civil Partnerships. From this, however, spun a seven-year movement towards the campaigning for real same-sex unions.
2005 was the year Civil Partnerships were first held. It was throughout this time that PinkNews, unsure of how to interpret this Act, ran headlines such as “Elton John and David Furnish marry in one of England’s first gay ceremonies”. The word “join” was even sometimes being used as a replacement for “marry.”
Over the first year of PinkNews, it was accepted that Civil Partnerships were a considerable improvement towards the treatment of LGBT people in British society. Equal marriage was something that was not worth the trouble.
In 2006, the site began to change its views however. By this time a UK High Court had denied a legally married Canadian Couple same-sex marriage equality. It became apparent that the UK was now falling behind the rest of the world in terms of marriage equality.
In 2010, in light of the upcoming election, PinkNews started questioning the leading politicians David Cameron, Nick Clegg, and Gordon Brown on their positions regarding equal marriage.
Nick Clegg showed positive support for same-sex marriage, stating: “Yes, I support gay marriage. Love is the same, straight or gay, so the civil institution should be the same, too. All couples should be able to make that commitment to one another.”
David Cameron, although he was less enthusiastic, also showed a modicum of support: “I want to do everything I can to support commitment and I’m open to changing things further to guarantee equality.” Shortly after, the Conservative Party’s Contract for Equalities promised to “consider the case for for changing the law to allow civil partnerships to be called and classified as marriage.”
Gordon Brown, on the other hand, showed no sign he was supporting the campaign: “The provision of ‘marriage’ as opposed to the provision of same-sex or heterosexual civil unions, is intimately bound up with questions of religious freedom.”
PinkNews also asked its readers whether they were in support of same-sex marriage and 98% said they wanted the right to choose whether they got married. Just 2% said that Civil Partnerships were enough.
2006 Canadian married couple denied UK marriage equality
Early in 2006, the High Court in London rejected calls for a legally married Canadian couple to have their union recognised in the UK, arguing that marriage could only be defined as between a man and a woman.
Sue Wilkinson and her partner Celia Kitzinger were legally married in Canada in 2005, but when they travelled to the UK in 2006, the couple tried and failed to argue in court case after court case that they should be considered to be a legally wed couple, rather than simply a couple in a “Civil Partnership.”
Reflecting on the Israeli High Court ruling in the same year which had allowed same-sex marriages to be recognised in the country, she added: “It’s good news for the equal marriage movement worldwide.
“I hope this will make it easier for us to pursue our campaign or make it easier for others to challenge Britain’s discriminatory system.”
2009 Stonewall ‘stonewalls’ marriage equality
In 2009, Stonewall under the leadership of Ben Summerskill, came under criticism for its continued lack of support for equal marriage.
Stonewall was first notably criticised in 2009, when Ben Summerskill was questioned whether he or not supported same-sex marriage. He said: “Well, someone people do and they’re perfectly entitled to express their views.
“We are one of many, many organisations but at the end of the day, in terms of our priorities, what we’ve always focused on, is absolutely practical hard outcomes which make a real difference to people’s lives…The reality is half the population already call Civil Partnerships marriage anyway.”
Mr Summerskill’s comments were criticised by two of Stonewall’s co-founders: Michael Cashman MEP, wrote an op-ed for PinkNews entitled “What part of ‘equality’ can’t Stonewall understand?”, and Sir Ian McKellen stated that Stonewall should put marriage equality on their agenda.
Mr Summerskill defended his comments at the Labour Party conference a week later after LGBT Labour activists criticised Stonewall’s lack of transparency and democracy, and failure to lobby for marriage.
He stated that “Stonewall has never pretended to be a democratic member organisation. We have never said we speak for all lesbian, gay and bisexual people.”
In the face of pressure from the LGBT community, including the PinkNews survey finding that 98% of the LGBT community wanted the right to marry, Stonewall finally announced in October 2010 their support for same-sex marriage.
2011 New support, new opposition, and the ‘Equal Love’ campaign
2011 was the year that the campaign marriage equality started to increase its tempo. It was the year of Peter Tatchell’s “Equal Love” campaign and its challenge to European Courts. And it was also the year that the issue of marriage itself began to fracture public opinion.
Peter Tatchell launched his “Equal Love” campaign in February 2011 to file an appeal to the European Court of Human Rights, in a bid to end sexual orientation discrimination in marriage and partnership law.
“Equal Love” also organised an online petition to urge MPs into backing the cause. The template letter stated: “I ask you to consider how you would feel if you were banned by law from marrying the person you love. I’m certain you’d feel upset and offended.”
In response to the campaign, Prime Minister David Cameron finally announced in October 2011 that the Government would legalise same-sex marriages before the next General Election.
While David Cameron was now showing his full public support for equality, others, such as Cardinal Keith O’Brien were less supportive.
He said: “The view of the Church is clear, no Government can rewrite human nature; the family and marriage existed before the state and are built on the union between a man and woman.”
Through into 2012, the Cardinal remained staunch to his opposition to equality, stating that “Redefining marriage will have huge implications for what is taught in our schools, and for wider society.
“It will redefine society since the institution of marriage is one of the fundamental building blocks of society. The repercussions of enacting same-sex marriage into law will be immense.”
By 2013, Keith O’Brien was even supporting the marriages of straight priests above the rights of same-sex couples:
“It is a free world and I realise that many priests have found it very difficult to cope with celibacy as they lived out their priesthood and felt the need of a companion, of a woman, to whom they could get married and raise a family of their own.”
As part of the “Equal Love” campaign, late 2010 saw four same-sex couples file applications for civil marriages at registry offices, and four straight couples apply for civil partnerships. All were refused.
On 2 February 2011, all eight couples made a joint application to the European Court of Human Rights to strike down this inequality, with a view to securing a change in UK law.
2012 Out4Marriage, Homecoming, and Coalition for Equal Marriage
In 2012, the rising tempo of marriage equality was now reaching its grand crescendo. Three notable campaigns: The PinkNews Out4marriage campaign, the YouTube Homecoming video by Mike Buonaiuto, and the Coalition for Equal Marriage group all shared the stage in a nationwide effort to lobby UK Parliament into action.
On March 2012, a consultation was finally opened to introduce civil marriage for same sex couples in England and Wales, but this consultation would not have then developed into the religious opt-in for same-sex marriage we have come to know today without the important backing of a few key players throughout the year.
In the same month the consultation launched, Conor Marron and James Lattimore submitted to PinkNews.co.uk their reason for starting a “Coalition for Equal Marriage” petition.
The petition, which had then gathered around 25,000 signatures in just a few weeks, was set up as a response to the “Coalition for Marriage” campaign started by a Christian group which protested against UK same-sex marriage.
They said: “Yes, gay couples are signing up for Civil Partnerships all the time, and we afforded the same rights under these partnerships as married couples.
“However, in civil weddings up and down the country, all those gathered are told, ‘Marriage according to the law of this country is the union of one man with one woman’. We have our noses rubbed it in every time we attend a civil wedding of a straight couple.”
In June, it was revealed the Catholic Education Service had “blurred” the line between faith and politics by including the anti-gay “Coalition for Marriage” petition in schools.
By April 2012, the campaign “Coalition for Equal Marriage” had reached 40,000 signatures, including a signature by Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, who was reported to have called it “a matter of how, not whether, equal marriage becomes legal in England and Wales.”
In that same month, another phenomenal campaign for marriage equality was launched on Youtube. The “Homecoming” video by Mike Buonaiuto, which has so far reached over 1 million hits online, tells the simple story of a soldier’s return from the frontlines.
The soldier steps off the plane amid a crowd of gathering families, friends, and lovers – perhaps some of them are even married. His eyes are searching for someone. The music wells.
He walks forward to his embrace his partner, a tall dark-haired and handsome man. Tears are streaming across both of the men’s faces. Then the soldier smiles. He seems prepared to make the ultimate commitment. He gets down on one knee and pulls out an engagement ring. He is proposing to the man he intends to marry.
The video ends with a simple yet poignant message: “All men can be Heroes. All men can be Husbands.”
Mike Buonaiuto, writing for PinkNews.co.uk, said that he “made the film to promote change and also inspire others to use their creativity to support equality and make history happen, not sit back and passively watch it.”
It was by 8 May that Mr Buonaiuto’s wish for creative community-wide support was about to come true. Soon after, PinkNews.co.uk was to launch its Out4Marriage campaign to provide a voice to those in favour of the cause.
The campaign, funded on a shoestring and established with the help of Mr Buonaiuto himself, reached every single national newspaper in the UK with the London Evening Standard exclusively publishing the transcript of each video on the afternoon that it was published. The campaign recently was named runner up in the Online Media Awards, behind The Times’ tax dodging exposé.
As part of the campaign, videos showed support for the legislation of same-sex marriage equality.
The videos included support from Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg; Home Secretary Theresa May; Minister for Equalities and Culture Secretary Maria Miller; Labour Leader Ed Miliband, Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls, Shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper, Sir Richard Branson, the Virgin founder; the film star Hugh Grant; Stephen Fry; the actor Simon Callow; the illusionist Derren Brown; The Saturdays girl group;Jack Straw, the former Foreign Secretary; Caroline Lucas, the former leader of the Green Party; Lynne Featherstone, the Lib Dem Minister; Peter Tatchell, the gay rights campaigner; Lord (Chris) Smith, the first openly gay MP and Rabbi Ariel Friedlander and many, many more.
Out4Marriage also launched its Lobby a Lord campaign in May 2013, which sent more than 20,000 personal messages to MPs in support of marriage equality. These messages have been cited in debates and many of the peers have written back to PinkNews readers thanking them for the personal reasons they have given to change the law.
The March 2012 consultation, which was closed in June 2012, was followed in December by an announcement that the Government would be introducing equal marriage legislation “within the lifetime of this Parliament”.
It was not until the following year, however, that these words would come to transform the equal marriage political campaign into Parliamentary action once and for all.
2013 Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill Unveiled
The Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill was introduced into the House of Commons on 24 January 2013.
The Bill, which would allow same-sex marriage in England and Wales, was welcomed by many in its first unveiling, including Stonewall.
The organisation Labour Humanists said there was “no credible ethical reason” to oppose gay marriage and Minister for Women and Equalities, Maria Miller, told the House of Commons that the proposals “will strengthen, not weaken” the institution of marriage.
The Bill was not been without its staunch opposition however.
The Coalition for Marriage, whilst giving evidence to the the Public Bill Committee of the House of Commons stated that the proposed Bill was responsible for a shortage of teachers, claiming that many experienced teachers had said they would retire early, for fear of getting into trouble for voicing anti-equal marriage opinions.
Another Tory MP David Burrowes, also accused PinkNews.co.uk of “fomenting hostility” against the opponents of equal marriage.
More from PinkNews
He asked Benjamin Cohen: “In terms of freedom, in terms of PinkNews, do you think your forum should be free to allow for the fomenting of hostility, hatred and accusations of homophobia for people like me, who believe that marriage is between a man and a woman, and the distinct value of it?”
One amendment stated: “For the avoidance of doubt, nothing in this Act shall contradict the principle that the belief that marriage is the voluntary union of one man and one woman for life to the exclusion of all others is a belief worthy of respect in a democratic society.”
On 15 July, the Bill passed through its passed through its Report Stage in the House of Lords, and has now passed its third reading on Monday.
On 16 July 2013, following a two hour debate, the House of Commons approved the amendments passed in the House of Lords at third reading and it became law on the 17 of July.
Related topics: Civil partnerships, Coalition for Equal Marriage, David Cameron, England, equal love, equal love campaign, equal marriage, gay liberation front, gay liberation movement, gay marriage, gay wedding, Keith O'Brien, lesbian marriage, lesbian wedding, LGBT politicians, marriage equality, Nick Clegg, Out4Marriage, OutRage, peter bone, Peter Tatchell, same sex marriage, Same-sex wedding, Stonewall, UK Marriage Bill