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Same-sex couples...to marry or not to marry: that is the question.

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Should same-sex couples be allowed to marry? Should heterosexual couples be allowed to have a civil partnership? Students at the University of Southampton have joined this global debate and launched a petition in support of the Equal Love campaign to change British laws. 

Current laws specify that marriage is for heterosexuals only and civil partnerships are restricted to same-sex couples. After learning of the petition and analysing the suggested need for same-sex marriage, is it the British public’s responsibility to support this cause and fight for change? 

Peter Tatchell, coordinator of the Equal Love campaign and human rights campaigner for the LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender) human rights group OutRage! began the campaign alongside Professor Robert Wintemute, who is a professor of human rights at King’s College London. Equal Love aims to overturn the current laws in Britain so that marriage and civil-partnerships are available to the whole population, regardless of sexual-orientation. 

In the Equal Love press release Peter Tatchell asserts that ‘the global trend is toward same sex marriage’. He then justifies the campaign further saying that ‘denying couples the right to civil marriage and civil partnership on the basis of their sexual orientation is a form of discrimination, and needs to end’. 

A Populous opinion poll in June 2009 said that 61 percent of British people support same-sex marriage (SSM), and the campaign already has the backing of labour party leader Ed Miliband, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, and Conservative Mayor of London Boris Johnson. The Liberal Democrats and the Green Party are also already firm supporters of equal rights in marriage, but this does not amount to enough cabinet seats to force a change in law, which is why the campaign depends on the support of another major party.  

There are basic reasons of practicality that evidence the benefits of marriage for same-sex couples. As the law currently stands a transgender married couple would have to get a divorce before a gender change can be legally recognised. Another practicality is that without civil marriage families are not legally recognised. In situations involving child custody, medical decisions, burial, and inheritance, preference is always given to legally recognised family members. Therefore, without a legally recognised marriage, same-sex couples lack any legal security for themselves or their children.  

Another factor that is prominent in the reasons to support the change in law is the role of equality in British society. Opposition to the campaign argue that civil-partnerships and marriage are basically the same, but if this is true then why does society dictate who can join which category and why create two categories when one should suffice? Same-sex couples want their relationships to be recognised under the same status as heterosexual couples.  

Naomi Phillips, British Humanist Association head of public affairs argues that ‘although civil partnerships are a step in the right direction, they are not equal to marriage and send a clear message that there is one system for gay couples and one for straight couples’.

Civil marriage has historically been used to distinguish a segregation and majority privilege. Originally marriage was forbidden to members of certain ethnic groups and you were not permitted to marry outside your ethnic group. Shockingly it was only as recently as 1967 that the Supreme Court overturned rules to allow different ethnic groups to marry in certain American states. Therefore, in supporting the laws and banning marriage on the basis of a single characteristic, is the British public making it easy to discriminate against same-sex couples?  

Author of The Meaning of Friendship, Mark Vernon (who is in a civil-partnership) seems to oppose the idea of same sex marriage saying ‘when you get into an institution you buy into a whole history, like it or not, and with marriage it’s been shaped by the fact that it’s usually been between a man and a woman.’ But was the term ‘marriage’ created to be an unchangeable and inadaptable term? Initially marriage was created as a lifelong commitment and a religious tradition, however, surely the legalisation of divorce alone shows that marriage is modernising to suit society, so it could be suggested that same-sex marriage is an inevitable change to marriage in order for it to accommodate all couples in society; the public are just prolonging the inevitable.

The definition of marriage also varies among cultures, being perceived as a means of stability, a condition for the upbringing of children or an expression of love. These ideals contrast significantly between religions, with some religions supporting SSM and others completely opposing it.

For example, Buddhism teaches about ‘sexual misconduct’, but this can be interpreted to mean adultery or homosexuality. Therefore Buddhism does not take a particular stance on the subject of SSM. Hinduism is similar to Buddhism because it does not seem to hold a position on this topic; it all depends on interpretation of the religion. Some Hindu’s completely oppose SSM, while others use texts such as the Karma Sutra to support the belief that Hinduism encourages same-sex couples.

Islam and Catholic churches completely oppose the idea of SSM.

Then many smaller belief groups, such as Quakers and the Episcopal Church support the idea of SSM.

Some priests oppose the Equal Love campaign because they assume there will be a risk of them having to go against their beliefs and marry same-sex couples. However, ultimately each religion differs and it would be their prerogative to carryout same sex marriages or not.

The meaning of a marriage differs greatly between cultures, religions, and individuals. Whether you agree with each term or not, you respect people’s beliefs. If society respects everyone’s rights of free speech and free exercise of religion, then shouldn’t Britain respect same-sex couples’ want for a marriage or heterosexual couples’ want for a civil-partnership?

Opposition to the campaign also argue that marriage provides stability to British society, and a change to this culture causes distress. However, society has egg/sperm donors, surrogacy and adoption legislations that focus on equality and do not vary according to sexual orientation, so would the change in civil-partnerships and marriage have an adverse affect on society, or would it just increase the options for individuals?

Professor Robert Wintemute states that ‘the existing legislation in the UK, the legislation on marriage involves discrimination based on sexual orientation’. 

A change to the law can promote a healthy and positive perspective from British society. Legal recognition of SSM would present the idea that British people value committed relationships and do not discriminate on the basis of gender, sexual orientation or religion.

In the words of Martin Luther King, ‘privileged groups do not want others to have this privilege’. Are heterosexual couples trying to hold on to the privilege of marriage? Should society encourage the change in law and deconstruct the illusion that same-sex couples are unworthy of the status of marriage?

Students at the University of Southampton have created a Valentine’s Day petition which will support the Equal Love campaign and encourage a change in law, to allow marriage and civil-partnerships to be available to everyone, regardless of sex.

The students are directing their campaign at the Labour party in order to try and gain enough seats for a necessary majority vote. However, the students do confirm that the petition will be sent to local MPs of all parties and ‘signing the petition has nothing to do with supporting labour, it’s about marriage equality’.

The students, led by Adam Scott, Dan Jeffrey and Josie Torrice, also have the full backing of Andy Godfrey, who last year founded the Why the Silence, Stonewall? Campaign calling on LGB (Lesbian, gay and Bisexual) charity Stonewall to support marriage equality.

The students have a stall on campus to encourage other students to sign the petition, but will also have a petition available for people to sign online from the 14th Feb.

If you would like to join the petition and campaign against the ban on same-sex marriages and heterosexual civil-partnerships then there is a link to the petition available through http://www.facebook.com/#!/event.php?eid=162873030430347.

There is also further information about the University of Southampton student’s campaign through this link and regular updates about the petition.

For further information about the Equal Love campaign or to view their press release visit, http://equallove.org.uk/.

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