Monday, 10 October 2011

Civil partnerships or 'gay marriage'? What should progressives be arguing for?

A month or so has passed without me banging on about some aspect of the politics of sexual identity. Yet I've been following the gay marriage debate with interest, watching the odd Conservative MP or two speak for or against it, the culmination of the debate being David Cameron's speech to the Tory conference last week. In the speech, he told the assembled blue-rinse brigade that he was for gay marriage “not despite, but because” he's a Tory. And despite the common perception that it's the older generation of his party that are most uncomfortable with it, there are plenty of younger Tories, including self-hating acquaintances from my past, who have also expressed reactionary sentiment against the idea. On the whole, however, it's reasonable to say that there is political consensus behind it.

Yet, to me, it's striking how little the gay community itself is talking about marriage equalisation. And let us resist the 'gay marriage' tag, because there's nothing inherently gay about making the law equal for same-sex couples. We don't after all, call the existing institution 'straight marriage'.

In reality it could only have been a matter of time before Cameron came out in favour of marriage equality, but I applaud him for his decision to once again make gay rights a cornerstone of one of his conference speeches. Speeches such as this are still important to leaders, if not the political rhythm of the UK more generally, and it took a confident centre-right Prime Minister to announce that he was in favour of marriage equality when the eyes of the UK's political class and media were on him. His speech means that the language of marriage equality is now commonly spoken not only by Cameron and all three mainstream party leaders, but by Peter Tatchell also, which is very rare indeed. Tatchell himself, in that classic liberal way of his, wouldn't even tie the knot in marriage himself, but believes it's a fundamental human right. I agree.

If and when the law to equalise the law does get passed however, it will pose an interesting dilemma for those gay and lesbian couples who are planning on getting hitched, or indeed are already in civil partnerships. I'm not sure which category my boyfriend and I will be in by the time that the law is passed – we officially registered our intention on Friday - but should we accept that a civil partnership is still as good as a newly defined extension of marriage? In other words, do we 'upgrade'?

Speaking purely for ourselves, we're actually quite happy with the relatively progressive institution of civil partnerships, the legislation for which has only existed since 2005. We are happy without the historical, religious and cultural trappings of marriage, and see our civil partnership as a more favourable evolution of the concept of shackling together human beings in matrimonial harmony. After all, whatever form of legal agreement we choose, we still have to decide who puts the bins out on Wednesday nights.

Chris Ashford's blog is another interesting read on this subject.

Oh, and this from Channel 4 News too. Had to have a little lie-down after half-agreeing with Douglas Murray.

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