Tuesday, 5 February 2013

UK rejects ‘separate but equal’ marriage

The British House of Commons has just concluded a historic vote, voting 400 to 175 to adopt gay marriage in England. But despite its historic nature, the legislation will prove to be of more symbolic than practical importance – particularly for its author, Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron.

In effect, the UK has already had gay marriage for eight years – but by another name. The Civil Unions signed into UK law in 2004 confer the exact same rights as a marriage – to the letter. Interestingly, as I’ve written about before, this made the gay marriage debate fade out of the limelight for many years in the UK. Because the civil unions were theoretically “equal”, gay rights activists weren’t really pushing too hard to have the word changed to ‘marriage’.

That was until an unlikely hero came along – David Cameron, leader of the British Conservative party. Cameron made it the central mission of his leadership to “detoxify” the conservative brand in the UK after years of being successfully cast as the “nasty Tories” by Tony Blair. Part of his effort to modernise the party was an campaign pledge in 2010 to enact gay marriage if elected. The response from gay UK was, “well, alright then I guess.”

There was plenty of suspicion that this was more about cold political calculation than about conviction. In fact when Channel 4 News just broadcast live after the vote from Rupert Street bar in Soho, the first gay person they grabbed said he actually opposed the bill, saying he already had an equal right to marriage under civil partnerships and this was needlessly pitting people against each other just for a political boost for Mr. Cameron.

But even though the civil unions did confer equal rights, there was a widespread feeling amongst the UK gay community that they weren’t truly ‘equal’. It never really felt the same to say people you knew were being ‘civil unioned’ rather than married. Most people just referred to themselves as ‘married’, but the fact that technically they were not married seemed to be a message from the state that their union was somehow lesser than a heterosexual marriage.

I remember once at my old office a gay colleague was having a civil union the following week, and people were passing around a card. My boss handed me the card and said “It’s for Philip, he’s getting married…I mean civil unioned, or whatever it is…” before she sort of trailed off into confusion. There was no intent on her part to belittle it, but she was confused about what to call it. And after eight years of having this situation in the UK, that was largely the attitude from the public – why exactly do we have civil unions instead of marriage exactly?

In the end, much like the US Supreme Court found in 1954 for racial segregation laws, the British public and their lawmakers came to believe that separate can never, in fact, be equal. Even if the ‘separate’ entities are theoretically given equal status. 

Denmark, Iceland and the Netherlands came to the same conclusion over the past years, while other more recent examples like Spain and Portugal skipped straight over civil unions and went from nothing to full gay marriage. It is increasingly looking like 'civil unions' were a temporary measure to bridge a time period when the public wasn't quite ready to fully accept gay marriage. In time, they may come to look like a historic anachronism. Even US President Barack Obama, who for a long time said he supported only civil unions but not full marriage, changed his stance last year. 

Race with France

Polls done as the issue was being discussed last year showed that 71% of British people were in favour of changing the civil unions to gay marriage. You may not have known that from the Commons debate tonight however, with many hardline Conservatives taking the floor to denounce the legislation as a moral outrage. In the end,  there were 400 votes for,186 against. That means a majority of Cameron’s own Conservative party voted against his legislation.

But the debate tonight pales in comparison to what is going on next door in France. Coincidentally (or not), France’s new president Francois Hollande is at this very moment also ushering through legislation allowing gay marriage in France. The first step of the French legislation (the first step of many) passed on Saturday.

The reaction to the French legislation has been very different from that in the UK. While Britain saw no significant street protests or media outcries over the legislation, France has seen some of the biggest demonstrations in recent decades organised against Hollande’s gay marriage proposal. The protests have been massive and well-organised – and theatrical (apparently the French right has no sense of kitsch). Hundreds of thousands of people have swarmed Paris to demonstrate against it, wearing bizarre costumes and carrying pink banners. Pro-gay rights demonstrations have been organised in Paris to counter the objectors, and there have been clashes on the streets.

The debate in the French national assembly is getting very ugly, and it will go on for several weeks.  Having the two pieces of legislation pass through France and the UK at the same time has underline the stark difference between the more ‘individualist’ UK and the more ‘collectivist’ France. That being said, the opposition is still in the minority in France. Saturday’s vote was 249 for, 97 against. And surveys last year showed that 65% of French people support gay marriage, a similar percentage to the UK.

Another interesting difference is that in France, the marriage was much more needed. Unlike the British civil unions, the French ‘PACs’ are grossly unequal to a full marriage. In fact as civil unions go, the rights conferred to a French PAC are only rivaled in their inequality to marriage by the domestic partnerships in Hungary or the Czech Republic.

The UK legislation will still have to pass through the House of Lords, and there are other votes that need to be taken in conjunction. But today’s vote was the one that would really determine the outcome. France’s vote on Saturday is being described the same way, but the legislative process there is expected to take longer. 

So, the UK will most likely emerge as the winner in the race to adopt gay marriage (though there is always the unlikely possibility that the Lords will use their prerogative to delay the legislation by a year). But one thing is clear: by next year, both France and England will have gay marriage. And Europe’s map of gay marriages and civil partnerships will suddenly have a lot more dark blue than light blue.

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