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Britain's obsession with marriage

The passing of the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill exposed just how bitterly divided government is over gay marriage.

Last Modified: 06 Apr 2013 12:19
Siobhan Courtney

Siobhan Courtney is a British freelance broadcast journalist and writer.
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"Same-sex couples are still not treated as equals, prohibited from marrying inside a church" [AFP]

A bill to legalise gay marriage in England and Wales has finally been approved, however the fight for equality and fairness is far from over. The Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill was passed by MPs in the House of Commons, but the divisiveness in government is clearer than ever. Almost half of Conservative MPs opposed the vote, illustrating homophobia is alive and kicking within the Tory party. 
 
The subject of marriage is something the British government is obsessed with. David Cameron believes marriage is the "bedrock of society" and "a great institution" and has no qualms dictating to the electorate how we should live our lives. It is not the job of the state though to nanny us over our interpersonal relationships, nor instruct couples who choose not to get married that they should be entering into holy matrimony.   

Marriage is such a fixation of the Prime Minister's, the introduction of a marriage tax break (a financial bribe of 150 pounds [$227] per year to convince couples to walk down the aisle) is still something he's determined not to give up on. The proposal has not a shred of credibility and is still yet to be passed, as in reality, the idea that a couple in Britain would be swayed to get married for "the reward" of 12.50 pounds ($18.92) a month is totally farcical. 

Marriage is a choice and one that the state has no right to package up with sweeteners as the right and most desirable option for everyone. The very notion of a marriage tax break hugely discriminates against couples who are in committed, loving relationships, but for whatever reasons decide not to get married and of course those in same sex relationships. 

Archaic views in a modern society 

Gay people have been forced into a compromising position by the British government. Enduring prejudices and discrimination, their relationships are not recognised in the same light as heterosexual partnerships by only being permitted to enter into "civil partnerships" not marriage. As a very close friend said to me after the passing of the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill: 

"Why on earth shouldn't gay people have the same rights as couples in heterosexual relationships? The term 'civil partnership' feels like a watered-down token gesture, the wording on the certificate made it feel like a bureaucratic process with the romance of marriage sucked out. I don't know whether I will one day get married or not but I want the right to be allowed to if I choose to, just as people who are born heterosexual do. If young gay people grow up thinking the state does not support them to be in a loving monogamous relationship with a person who they naturally feel attracted to, this cycle of intolerance, with its damaging and sometimes life threatening consequences will continue." 

The irony in Britain is the only people who make a fuss and regard gay marriage as a contentious issue is the "governing elite". The British public can, quite rightly, see no validity in not allowing same sex couples to marry. The latest poll from YouGov shows 55 percent welcome change compared to 36 percent who don't. It is simply illogical to oppose two committed people, regardless of sexual orientation, the right and choice to commit to each other in the way they regard as symbolically necessary. 

"David Cameron believes marriage is the 'bedrock of society' and 'a great institution' and has no qualms dictating to the electorate how we should live our lives."

Marriage and the establishment 

The passing of the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill is restrictive as the Church of England is not obliged to conduct same sex marriages. Essentially, the underlying message from the established church is that gay couples are not deemed "worthy enough" to have their ceremony in a church if they so wish. My friend highlights the freedom of choice straight couples have by marrying within more open minded churches or outside of the church and asks why shouldn't gay people be given an equal right to choose to do the same? 

"This shows what a backward and deeply intolerant and prejudiced institution the church is and personally I would not want to get married under its arches. In a country where over half of gay young people face bullying at school, and where tens of thousands of gay people are subjected to hate crimes each year because people don't accept the way they were born, our bigoted society shows no sign of changing." 

The Church of England say they won't support the bill, because of its concern for the uncertain and unforeseen consequences for wider society and the common good when marriage is redefined in gender-neutral terms. They responded to the government's plans to legislate stating:

"The Canons of the Church of England define marriage, in accordance with Christ's teaching and the doctrine of the Church, as being between a man and a woman." 

They also reference in their note on Same Sex Marriage the recent comments from Archbishop of York, Most Rev John Sentamu who shifts attention and responsibility from the church to government by stating: 

"We must not torture the English language. Marriage is a relationship between a man and a woman and that's marriage. We supported Civil Partnerships [the bishops in the House of Lords], because we believe that friendships are good for everybody. But then to turn Civil Partnerships into marriage, that's not the role of government to create institutions that are not of its gifting. I don't think it is the role of the state to define what marriage is. It is set in tradition and history and you can't just [change it] overnight, no matter how powerful you are. We've seen dictators do it, by the way, in different contexts and I don't want to redefine what I call very clear social structures that have been in existence for a long time and then overnight the state believes it could go in a particular way." 

The subject of marriage in Britain is confusing and contradictory. The passing of the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill exposed just how bitterly divided government is over gay marriage and how the Tories are out of touch with the beliefs of modern Britain. Homosexual couples are still not treated as equals, prohibited from marrying inside a church. Heterosexual, cohabiting couples are being dictated to and pressurised into marrying through financial bribes and social norms instructing that marriage is "the right and only choice". And what about the Church's role in this? Would the legalisation of gay marriage in Britain ever lead to the disestablishment of the Church?
 
Siobhan Courtney is a British freelance broadcast journalist and writer. She is a former BBC World News presenter and BBC News journalist who has reported and written for BBC Newsnight.

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The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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