Entering the twenty-first century

The consensus on civil partnerships for same-sex couples is a big step forward, argues

Conservative Party leader Michael Howard, who in Margaret Thatcher’s cabinet was a hard-line opponent of gay rights, has to the surprise of many “come out” in strong support of government proposals to make civil partnerships available to same-sex couples. His announcement was followed by a proposal for a “gay summit” at Westminster later this month, which will hear accounts of discrimination faced by young gay people in Britain.

These developments establish a consensus on this issue among the leadership of all major British political parties, which until recently would have been unimaginable. Howard’s argument is that the state should not interfere with those who want to “live their lives in different ways”. It shows that Michael Howard has recognised that his party has no hope of electoral success unless it engages with a changing world.

Current British legislation does not recognise homosexual relationships at all, defining homosexual relations in purely sexual terms. The government’s proposals for same-sex partnerships will for the first time acknowledge such relationships exist. In addition, this recognition of civil partnerships will afford some pension rights, inheritance tax relief and next of kin status.

Perhaps the most hysterical opposition to the plans came from Daily Mail columnist Melanie Phillips. She claims, “Gay partnerships are a means of destroying monogamous heterosexual marriage as our prime social and legal institution”. Her argument is that “promiscuous gays” are not fit even to be granted the right to enter into civil partnerships, and if they are, marriage will be undermined. However, same-sex partnership rights would give homosexuals access to only some of the rights afforded to married couples, but would not constitute marriage. The reasons that marriage threatens being undermined is worthy of analysis, but such an analysis must focus on wider issues, not the issue of same-sex partnerships or marriage, both of which are red-herrings conjured up in order to scapegoat a minority.

Meanwhile, in the US the issue of gay marriage will be a central in the upcoming presidential election campaign. President Bush last week declared his intention to press for a constitutional amendment specifically to “defend the sanctity of marriage” against individual states’ recent decisions to permit same-sex marriage. Bush wishes to tar his newly anointed Democratic opponent John Kerry, with the brush of being a “typical liberal” on this issue.

As President Bush’s political JCB delves into John Kerry’s past, the Democrats are in an awkward position. In 1996, Kerry spoke on the Senate floor opposing attempts to define marriage as union between a man and a woman, likenening such efforts to 1960s Southerners attempting to outlaw interracial marriages. Of course, Bush will mercilessly use this to pillory John Kerry. And Kerry, in fear of the ballot, has retreated from his earlier stance and has placed himself in opposition to marriage for same-sex couples, while supporting civil partnerships.

So we have a wholly unexpected state of affairs, where all major party leaderships in the UK and US exhibit consensus on civil partnerships for same-sex couples. This would seem a cause for celebration. Yet the notion that same-sex couples are not capable of the stability and security afforded by marriage is a stereotype that should be challenged. Marriage, despite the views of some, is no longer the vestige of any particular religion. To allow same-sex couples to marry would actually enhance the social institution of marriage by granting not only legal status, but equal dignity and respect for same-sex relationships. The institution of marriage would then be operating in the world in which we live rather than a “fairy tale land”.

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