I think it’s pretty safe to say that the contemporary struggle over legal recognition of same-sex couplings in the United Kingdom has not been this exciting for a long time.
The typically British compromise position of the civil partnership system, introduced in 2004, undoubtedly demonstrated some impressive strategic thinking on the part of the outgoing Labour government, allowing it to satisfy the demands of Stonewall, the primary UK LGB political lobbying organisation, while avoiding the inevitable reaction from conservative forces in the country (mostly evangelical Christians, like the Christian Institute, though thankfully nothing like as well-resourced, angry or insidiously entrenched within the political establishment as their Stateside counterparts, nor with their global reach).
However, civil partnership also seemed to take the wind out of the sails of those who were arguing compellingly for a more radical system of partnership rights for LGB people, including the demand for same-sex marriage.
Suddenly, though, the wind appears to have changed.
The civil partnership settlement could never have lasted for long, but the sheer explosion of frenetic political energy in this area in the last few months has been quite something to watch.
Without doubt a lot of it has to do with the sudden change of guard in Parliament. Desperate to strengthen their positions in an increasingly uncertain political landscape following the May elections, by currying favour with the “Pink Vote”, the Liberal Democrats, Labour Party and Green Party each announced in quick succession their support for full same-sex marriage rights.
The Tories, on the other hand, have just carried on digging in their heels.
While Teresa May’s Equality Manifesto promised that the Conservatives would consider the case for converting civil partnerships to full marriage (hardly a clear statement of purpose, but better than nothing), Cameron had sheepishly backtracked from the proposal by May 2010, demonstrating again the political schizophrenia of a party that has yet to exorcise its homophobic demons.
Nothing then it seems has really changed about Conservative politics on gay rights (always unnerving then to discover how excitable the LGBT conservatives remain about merging LGBT politics with right wing ideologies – although I did note – with little surprise, and just a hint of exasperation – the sea of white male faces that greets you when you scan the galleries of their website).
More surprising still has been the recent Con-Lib stance on section 202 – the provision of the Equality Act 2010 introduced by Lord Alli’s amendment in 2009 – which if implemented would permit civil partnerships to be held in religious premises. Using that democratically illegitimate, but strategically devious, technique of refusing to implement any part of an outgoing administration’s legislative portfolio with which you disagree, the Equalities Office has sided ironically with the politics of religious intolerance.
Surely with all the government’s rhetoric about the need for a return to proper protection of civil liberties, after the purported authoritarian tendencies of New Labour, this lurch to control the freedom of religious bodies to oversee civil partnerships if they wish (hooray for the Quakers!) is an odd change of tune, let alone potentially a breach of Article 9 of the European Convention.
But it gets better! Perhaps the most intriguing saga around the struggle for same-sex marriage has been the almost complete implosion of the LGB activist organisation Stonewall. Already smarting from (compelling) criticism that it wasn’t doing enough to advocate on behalf of the largely under-resourced trans activist communities, it was charged with failing to properly represent even its traditional constituency of lesbians, gay men and bisexuals, when it refused to formally support same-sex marriage as part of its policy agenda.
Following the outpouring of support from the major political parties for same-sex marriage Stonewall claimed – and I quote – that it was “consulting” on the need for same-sex marriage in the UK. As if the charity needed to prove any further how out of touch and ‘establishment’ it had become, it finished off its defence of its position with the observation by Ben Summerskill that in the difficult economic climate the cost of introducing same-sex marriage – estimated at upwards of £5 billion – was prohibitively expensive. Stunned silence from LGB people across the country – and then understandable anger – presumably greeted this demonstration of neo-liberal idiocy. Thankfully, Sir Ian McKellen came to the rescue – as he so often does – and quietly put the new guard right about their priorities. And Stonewall has indeed changed its tune.
Thank heavens for Gandalf.
And so on to at least a glimmer of common sense from the UK LGB activist community around partnership recognition, in the form of OutRage’s current “Equal Love” campaign. The campaign is simple. Rather than simply calling for same-sex marriage rights, Peter Tatchell has sent a group of both straight and gay couples to registry offices across the country, to attempt to form legal partnerships from which they are currently excluded: marriage for gays, civil partnership for straights. They expect to be – and have been – refused.
But what this new conception of politics around partnership recognitions demonstrates is a way out of the usual intra-LGB community infighting over the struggle for same-sex marriage here and elsewhere, and in particular the entirely valid concerns of those – especially lesbian feminist – who have little time for the patriarchal origins and indeed hangovers implied by the marriage contract. It also deploys the most powerful LGB strategy of all – identification of political goals shared by heterosexuals and queers alike.
Unsatisfied – like many of us are – with the current assumption that LGB equality means ‘marriage or bust’, Peter Tatchell has shown us the way towards a political agenda that could achieve not same-sex marriage alone, but equal access of all people to both marriage and civil partnership. Those who want marriage alone can buy into that status, while those who take issue with its implications can choose instead to settle within the suitably modern civil partnership system instead. Brilliant politics once again from OutRage, which respects individual choice, while retaining its admirably radical edge.
There’s more, much more, that I could mention, if I had the time.
Consider the European Court judgment in Schalk v Austria in June 2010, for instance, which finally recognised gay couples as ‘families’ under Article 8 of the Convention, but took two steps back with its assessment that not only does there remain no obligation on European states to grant same-sex marriage rights, but not even an expectation they they should recognise any form of partnership recognition for same-sex partners at all. Come on Europe – there’s only so much work the margin of appreciation doctrine can do – are you a human rights court, or is it a case of wait-and-see-and-hope-for-the-best when it comes to the rights of LGB people?
These are exciting times for the struggle for radical agendas of partnership recognition in the UK and Europe as a whole, but also frustrating times in pretty much equal measure. Now who wants to join me on the barricades?