Sunday, 10 February 2013

Equal Marriage: A Victory for Progress

by Jo Kirby

  Tuesday February 5th was a landmark victory for progress and equality. Despite fierce opposition from many and claims that allowing equal marriage equates to supporting incest, bestiality, paedophilia and polygamy, MPs voted 400 to 175 to legalise same-sex marriage.

So what was all the fuss about? Responses from those who opposed the bill varied from outright disgust to claiming that such unions are ‘unnatural’ or ‘sinful’. As Britain's most senior Catholic Cardinal Keith O’Brien put it, equal marriage is “A grotesque subversion of a universally accepted human right”. However, the very nature of a human right is that it is available to all humans. Marriage is a right which should be available to everyone regardless of their gender or sexuality. The bigotry of those who oppose same-sex marriage must be challenged and exposed as hypocritical and unjust.   Equal marriage is already available in 8 out of the 10 European countries surrounding Britain. This bill should not be seen as controversial but as a rational next step in implementing legislation which protects the human rights and equality of every member of our society.

Many Tory MPs and religious opponents of the bill base their case on the claim that marriage is a sacred institution. As David Simpson MP so eloquently put it “This is an ordained constitution of God. In the Garden of Eden it was… Adam and Eve. It wasn’t Adam and Steve”. Regardless of the fact that Simpson seems unaware that science has superseded mythological narratives, especially in the 150 years since Darwin, the argument that marriage is sacred seems somewhat outdated. Marriage is not owned by religion. Over 60% of marriages in the UK today are conducted in secular ceremonies. It seems that for the majority of British people the religious aspect of marriage is losing its significance. Sir Roger Gale MP opposed equal marriage for failing to protect the sanctity of marriage. He’s on his third wife.

Other MPs object to equal marriage on the grounds that it breaks tradition. However, the nature of marriage has always adapted to the times. If this was not the case, interracial marriages would be prohibited, wedlock of children would be permissible and parents could arrange the marriages of their children from birth to suit their financial needs. The exclusively heterosexual nature of marriage has not always been the tradition. More than one Roman Emperor married a man until same-sex marriages were outlawed in 342CE. Marriage has changed in the past. It is time for it to change again.

Many MPs raised particular concern over the potential for adultery in same-sex marriages. Nadine Dorries MP for example, refused to support the bill because, according to her, same-sex marriage does not require faithfulness. Mrs Dorries makes this claim despite having conducted an affair with a married man herself.  Some straight people are unfaithful but we don't respond to this by banning them all from marrying. Why are LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered) people any different?

One of the most incoherent arguments against same-sex marriage is that it is immoral because it does not allow for the possibility of children. Should we, therefore, ban heterosexual couples from marrying because they don't want children? Or, perhaps we should conduct fertility tests on couples after their engagement, banning anyone infertile from the opportunity to marry. Clearly this would be ridiculous. It also fails to recognise the many LGBT couples who do have children and who provide them with loving and safe homes. Same sex couples are biologically incapable of procreating with each other but so are many straight couples - this is not a good enough reason to exclude them from the right to marry.

Thankfully it now appears that such bigotry is becoming increasingly unacceptable. Bigots fail to see why partial equality is inadaquate. LGBT people can already enter civil partnerships in the UK. Why do they have to fight for full marriage rights as well?

The fact is, a civil partnership is not a marriage. As Lord Tebbit declared in 2010 "We should be utterly, completely and absolutely clear that a civil partnership is not a marriage, cannot be a marriage, never will be a marriage and should be treated entirely separately from marriage." This separation clearly shows the lack of equality and perpetuates the discrimination of same-sex couples. Civil partnerships were a great step towards equality but it is time for this ideal to be fully realised.

The progress made in Parliament towards introducing equal marriage must be celebrated, not condemned. Let's not forget that marriage is about love. It creates a strong union based on commitment, stability and trust which benefits the couple, families and society. These benefits are just the same for same-sex marriages. The people who will be practically affected by this bill are couples who want to celebrate their love by having their union recognised formally. Shouldn't we welcome such commitments as beautiful and hopeful?

No one is asking religious institutions to conduct these ceremonies against their will. No one is trying to reinterpret marriage for straight people. All that is being asked is that same-sex couples who love each other and who want to spend the rest of their lives together are able to have an equal opportunity to marry. Same-sex marriage must be welcomed as progress that will strengthen the bond between same-sex couples. It will enhance, not compromise, the institution of marriage. Yes, this may seem a romanticised ideal but isn't that what marriage is all about?

Read, also, a debate between Daniel Rollins, George Hope and Lucy Cole about whether same-sex marriage should be legal and whether marriage itself is an outdated institution.

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