Tory MPs calling for equal marriage proposals to be delayed to ‘focus on what matters’ need to understand how desperate LGBT couples are for equal rights.
By Reema Patel
MPs calling for the equal marriage debate to be delayed to ‘focus on what matters’ need to understand how desperate LGBT couples are for the rights that come hand-in-hand with marriage vows.
Defence secretary Philip Hammond said that the proposals for equal marriage ought to be delayed to ‘focus on what matters’. I agree with Philip Hammond – we do have to focus on what matters. This article is a reminder to those (who need reminding) why equal marriage matters.
It matters because it is the humane thing to do. In this respect, it is not unlike the other challenges that face us: growing the economy, getting young people back into jobs, caring for our elderly and vulnerable, and building a sustainable welfare state.
It matters because the introduction of equal marriage would not just be an administrative dressing up of the Civil Partnership Act 2004. The equal marriage proposals will significantly affect the pension rights of gay couples who choose to get married.
Special pension rights and rules applicable to married couples (when the Civil Partnership Act 2004 came into force) still prevent many civil-partnered couples from backdating their pension rights to before 2005. Transgendered married individuals who were already in marriages are currently required to dissolve or annul their marriages.
The introduction of equal marriage reforms will allow those individuals to retain their pension and other tangible income-related rights under their marriages (including the right to have their pensions backdated). It is clear that the introduction of equal marriage would result in serious financial and practical consequences for many lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) couples.
These issues matter – particularly as individuals are now living and working longer.
Secondly and more importantly, equal marriage is not just an administrative dressing up of the Civil Partnership Act 2004 precisely because reform opponents are loudly refusing to treat it as one. It matters because it will be a step towards removing the persistent disenfranchisement of LGBT people that has existed in public life. It is a step towards recognising the vulnerability that LGBT people and their families suffer as a result of that invisibility.
Whether that is the threat of being separated from a same-sex long-term partner when in need of residential social care, the threat of forced marriage that may loom over young men and women who are discovered to be LGBT, the threat of being abused or subject to violence on the grounds of one’s sexual orientation.
It may be the threat of being deported because one’s relationship with another person of the same-sex is not recognised or the problems facing the teacher or the student who faces barracking from pupils because they suspect he or she is gay; there is still much to be achieved in raising awareness of and tackling the homophobia (much of which is implicit, some of which is explicit) which touches and often destroys the lives of many human beings.
Equal marriage isn’t a panacea to tackling any of these problems – but equal recognition in the law is a start.
It cannot be denied that the proposal for equal marriage has invited largely emotive and visceral reactions from opponents – and that is (oddly) a good thing. It provokes such a reaction because it challenges many people’s perceptions about what it means to live a fulfilling life – often associated with a family life entrenched within a particular community with a particular way of life.
This means that any British government which passes an equal marriage reform will have to lead, and make the case for equal marriage in a society which is increasingly diverse.
It needs a government competent and confident enough to confront and negotiate those visceral reactions so that we can move beyond them to a long overdue and more rational discussion about the sort of society we live in, the compromises we have to make with those we live alongside, and the sort of rights that all human beings are entitled to within this society.
Barack Obama’s statement in support of gay marriage abroad is indicative of such leadership. He is unlikely to benefit politically from such a statement. So why make it? Because beyond all of the politicking, he recognises there is a point at which leaders and governments have to be honest about what it is they stand for.
Equal marriage in this country should be a reform passed by a government that is willing to make the case for it. The issues around equal marriage are symptomatic of a debate that we as a nation should be having more openly about how we should treat and recognise human beings and their relationships with each other at some of the most distressing and uplifting times of their lives.
If we are in politics to make a difference to the lives of ordinary people, then equal marriage will move us much closer to making that kind of difference.
So absolutely, Mr Hammond – it matters.