Laura Amey, a straight ally, wonders what effect equality has on the institution of marriage.
One of the arguments raised against gay marriage is the perceived threat it poses to the stability of society and the institution of marriage. Yet, I would argue that marriage could increase stability and financial security in gay people’s lives as well as breaking down the stereotype of promiscuity in the gay community. As for negative effects on straight marriage, the only problem I can think of is increased competition for wedding venues, caterers and so on!
Largely, the difficulty some people have had with the idea of marriage equality seems to simply be based on the meaning of the word ‘marriage’. Of course, on a wider level, there are still those who feel strongly against all declarations of LGBT+ identity. There are also many objectors, particularly those in Parliament, who have clarified that they are not wholly opposed to gay rights and are, for example, supportive of civil partnerships. So perhaps we need to look at marriage on a semantic level.
Does the word ‘marriage’ imply a relationship between a man and a woman just because that is what it has traditionally involved? In real life, people don’t tend to be too concerned with semantic precision. Romantic expression and succinctness are more important. In the context of a forthcoming civil partnership, a gay couple might announce their ‘engagement’ – is this another word with reserved and limited meaning? Friends might excitedly tell each other that Keith and Cedric are ‘getting married’ (rather than ‘forming a civil partnership’) and they must find a new outfit for the ‘wedding’ (rather than the ‘civil ceremony’). In some ways then, provision for universal marriage is only officialising an already established mode of thinking and speaking.
With civil partnerships in place in the UK since 2004, one could question the need for gay marriage. Although many gay people would like their relationship to be affirmed in a spiritual context, civil partnership ceremonies cannot include any religious symbols, readings or music, just as in civil marriage ceremonies. Straight couples, though, have long been able to choose between civil and religious marriage, so true equality would give everyone this choice regardless of sexuality.
This is probably the biggest potential impact of gay marriage: the right to marry in a church or other religious venue. Some religious leaders are perhaps concerned that they will have to perform ceremonies they are not comfortable with and which some members of their congregations may have strong views on. This is a tricky point. If there is legislation permitting gay religious wedding ceremonies in religious buildings, should any religious leaders be able to opt out? At the same time, forcing gay marriage on unwilling religious officials could arguably contravene their right to practise their faith as they perceive it.
There are however many churches and religious groups with liberal standpoints and strong links with the LGBT+ community. Gay couples wishing to marry in a religious context may well already have connections with such groups and would be more likely to choose such welcoming churches for their ceremonies. The issue of church divisions on gay marriage might then not be so significant for the majority of gay couples, either because they opt for a civil marriage or choose a gay-friendly religious setting, but it remains to be seen how equal marriage legislation will be implemented.