By Mark Day
What’s in a name? Quite a lot according to the gay rights activist Peter Tatchell, who in an article for LabourList on Sunday claimed that civil partnerships did not represent full equality for gay people because ‘same-sex marriage is still illegal’.
It was an assertion he repeated at London’s gay pride over the weekend, accosting the prime minister’s wife Sarah Brown on the march to remind her that ‘although she and Gordon were able to get married, gays cannot.’
Despite the fact that civil partnerships introduced by Labour in 2004 carry a directly comparable set of rights and responsibilities as civil marriage, the fact that they are considered ‘partnerships’ and not ‘marriages’ is still seen as a cause for concern by some in the gay community, as Mrs Brown can now attest.
For Tatchell they represent a form of ‘sexual apartheid’ that leaves the ‘homophobic’ nature of traditional marriage unchallenged (while civil partnerships, by not allowing straight couples to participate, are ‘heterophobic’). Not everyone in the gay community agrees, seeing his and others’ objections as mainly a quibble over semantics. After all, if civil partnerships are essentially the same in law as civil marriage what does it matter if they are spelt differently in the statute book?
While the arguments for and against civil partnerships have been rehearsed many times elsewhere, one question that is rarely addressed is whether a campaign for ‘gay marriage’ would have had the same success in achieving equal rights for same sex couples under the law as the drive for civil partnerships undoubtably succeeded in doing. The answer I believe is almost certainly no.
Whether we like it or not, marriage is one of those words that, unlike ‘partnership’, carries with it an awful lot of cultural baggage. For many religious people it is a sacred rite which, in most faiths, can only be entered into by a man and a woman. For non-believers it is still a term that carries with it a heavy burden of expectations whose benefit not everyone is necessarily agreed on. Many feminists see marriage as an institution still tainted with the lingering suspicion of male oppression, and wonder why gay campaigners want to have anything to do with it.
No such hang-ups exist with the idea of partnership. Indeed many gay people actively prefer the term as being free from all the religious and cultural associations that go hand in hand with traditional matrimony.
In the debate on the civil partnership bill in 2004 its use had the added advantage of killing the socially conservative and religious objections to the legislation stone dead. Since ‘marriage’ was not the issue at stake, the biblical armoury traditionally wielded by the Conservative opposition in such matters was rendered politically redundant. This allowed the debate to take place on the substantial issues of the bill instead of the pseudo-theological slanging match it might have been. Indeed the debate was remarkable for the quality of the discussion and the degree of consensus it managed to achieve between the parties in both Houses of Parliament.
By contrast a bill introducing gay marriage would have inevitably divided political opinion in both Houses. The unelected bishops in the House of Lords would have had a field day quoting Genesis and Leviticus to paint the idea of ‘marriage’ between gay people as a religious and cultural misnomer. The Tories also would have been unlikely to back the legislation for fear of offending their socially conservative supporters. Without the support of the Conservative front bench, the bill would have been unlikely to pass, and same-sex couples would not enjoy the equal protection under the law that they currently do today.
So Peter Tatchell may choose to see civil partnerships as a form of ‘sexual apartheid’ if he likes. But given the joy and security they have given to thousands of gay couples since their introduction, the words of Shakespeare’s own star-crossed lovers may be more appropriate: ‘a rose by any other name would smell as sweet’.