The day equality crossed the floor

portcullis1This article is admittedly lengthy, but I feel it would be disrespectful to those heavily invested in the debate’s outcome to deal with it spuriously. I have done my best to keep it succinct, but (constructive) criticism is welcome. Happy reading.

Tuesday’s debate over the legalisation of same-sex marriage in the UK has been one of the most heated, contentious and frustrating debates in living memory. Heated, naturally, because of the deeply-held, irreconcilable convictions of both opponents and proponents of this Bill; contentious because of the profound way in which it will affect the future of civil liberties in the United Kingdom; and intensely frustrating due to the fact that some of the same arguments were being repeated ad nauseam, despite their having been largely addressed and debunked hours earlier.

It would be pointless to attempt to summarise the entire debate on gay marriage from start to finish in one blog post. Instead, I have a simple question:

Are all citizens equal before the law, and the court of public opinion?

Sadly, not yet. But we’re getting there.

The times, they are a-changin’

Over the past century in this country we have had a programme of progressively liberalising politics with respect to what we consider to be fundamental human rights. One hundred years ago, in 1913, the UK was a rigidly stratified, aristocratically hierarchical and patriarchal society where most of the population had no established right to choose their government or the laws that governed their lives. This government and its laws permeated the privacy of people’s private lives, criminalising that which most people (at least, those under 50) in the UK would now agree is not a deviant lifestyle choice, but a fundamental and innate characteristic over which we have as much decision-making ability as we do over our own eye colour or allergies.

Since that time we have seen:

  • the partial enfranchisement of women, at first only to those married and over 30 years old;
  • universal suffrage, where everyone citizen over 18, irrespective of sex or level of property ownership, was given the right to vote;
  • a universal declaration of human rights that offered equality and protection from discrimination on certain fundamental grounds;
  • the decriminalisation of homosexuality, so that they would also count as “equal”;
  • civil rights acts granting eligibility for this equality to minorities;
  • laws strengthening all citizens’ protection from hate crimes; and
  • homosexual couples granted some measure of legal protection through Civil Partnerships.

Oppositional MPs rightly pointed out on Tuesday that the Civil Partnerships Act was not expressly intended as a precursor to gay marriage. They were wrong, however, to infer that this would categorically rule out any future consideration of gay marriage in perpetuity.

Married women over 30 being given the vote in 1918 was no doubt a pragmatic compromise at the time; this did not, however, specifically preclude suffrage being universalised ten years later. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights did not eliminate the need to then redefine “human” or “rights”, as evidenced by minorities’ subsequent struggles for full recognition of their equality and civil rights.

As Emma Reynolds (Lab) astutely noted during the debate: “Until 1991, it was legal for a husband to rape his wife. The law is neither perfect, nor sacrosanct.

Even a cursory reason of history shows that most of this change has been gradual, so as to allow time for prevailing public opinion to change. It wouldn’t be unreasonable to say that every stage of progressive liberalisation has met extreme resistance from traditionalists, only for the next generation to already take changes for granted, unable to conceive of a world otherwise.

Most of those opposed to this Bill time and again returned to the assertion that marriage is defined as the union between one man and one woman, and that were that definition to be challenged, it would profoundly affect the established Christian Church. Changing the legal definition of marriage, however, will not change religious freedom in the UK: in fact, I find it mightily convenient that the ‘quadruple lock’ (quoth Miller, “We are 100% clear that if any church, synagogue or mosque does not want to conduct a gay marriage it will not – absolutely must not – be forced to hold it”) slipped their minds during the debate.

Etymology be damned

Some have raised an etymological argument, which needs to be addressed. Yes, the roots of the English world marriage are shared with matrimony, meaning the entailment of a state of motherhood. Agreed. To focus on this as a legitimate reason not to allow homosexuals to marry, however, is to be wilfully ignorant of three significant points.

1. Words change. They are not magically imbued with concrete, inalienable meanings somehow tied to the very word itself; words have the meaning which we attribute to them. Topically, the word ‘gay’ used to mean ‘happy’, and ‘civil rights’ or ‘human rights’ encompassed a different set of principles to those we would typically think of today.

It’s therefore completely idiotic to think that the word ‘marriage’ is somehow impervious to the same changes – in fact it has been changed several times, in a variety of different ways, over the past two centuries. Arguing that changing the definition of marriage is automatically a bad thing is merely pointless, wilfully blind nostalgia.

2. Who says marriage is for the purposes of conception anymore? Many heterosexual couples enter into marriages and never have children; many enter into them knowing full well they either do not want or cannot have children. Many gay couples either have children by donors or adopt them, and more and more heterosexual couples are starting families without ever intending to get married. All of these observations point to the fact that the way in which people perceive the notion of marriage today (i.e. the legal recognition of a commitment to life-long relationship) is a far cry from the institution of creating genetically-protectionist procreation arrangements.

3. What gives religious organisations the continued right, in a secularising, liberalising, more tolerant, democratic and egalitarian society, to retain hegemony over the definition of a word like ‘marriage’? For one thing, the Marriage Act of 1836 made marriage a civil right, not a religious matter. Yes, religious organisations were still granted power to officiate them, and the state continued to recognise that which religions denoted was a marriage, but the fact remains that control of the legal recognition of marriage was stripped from the Church 177 years ago. Nor did the Church invent marriage, but assumed control over validating a pre-existing contractual process in 1215, at the Fourth Council of the Lateran.

Religious freedom: a two-way street

This Bill is not contrary to the wishes of all religious institutions in the UK. All this Bill will do with respect to religious freedom in the United Kingdom is allow those who wish to carry out same-sex marriages to do so in the eyes of the law. If that is not an argument for religious freedom, I don’t know what is.

Not in my back yard

What this issue ultimately boils down to in my opinion is a simply a question of perception and association.

The only change this law will effect with regards to heterosexuals in the UK – religious or not – is the way in which people see themselves, because the identity club of ‘the married’ is set to get bigger. Grass-roots religious conservatives and back-bench arch-Tories, who currently enjoy the cosy self-image of ‘being married’ may simply just not want to be made to feel part of the same group as homosexuals. Changing the keyword around which a fundamental part of someone’s identity – their sense of themselves and their place in wider society – may be threatening to some, but it needn’t be. Fearing the “Other” in this way is nothing more than the unconscious vestiges of society’s engrained, deep-seated homophobia, based on a lack of understanding and a self-righteous unwillingness to rectify this, now manifested as a reaction to a perceived external threat and dressed up in the guise of etymological piousness.

Religious conservatives do not want to be forced to see themselves in the same category as homosexuals. If that is so, come out [sic] and say so, but don’t insult others’ intelligence by quoting scripture (whose authority over dictionary definitions I vehemently challenge) and relying on blind insistence that perceptions and terminology are not in a constant state of flux.

I will be the first to say that religious people deserve to have their opinions heard. I have no problem disagreeing with people on religious grounds, as long as a stubborn reliance on nothing but unsubstantiated dogma doesn’t prohibit enlightened and respectful debate. But I will not accept someone hiding behind their personal faith and claiming religious persecution, whilst inciting others to hateful, discriminatory or otherwise alienating behaviour towards a particular section of society who love a particular kind of person.

To quote David Lammy during the debate, “separate but equal” is “an excerpt from the phrasebook of segregationists and racists […] It is not separate but equal, but separate and discriminated against, separate and oppressed, separate and browbeaten, separate and subjugated.”

If in doubt, ask George Bernard Shaw.