Separation Anxiety – Discrimination In The Marriage Act

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A name signed on a piece of paper can mean a thousand different things. It can be a matter of life and death, of freedom, equality and dignity. On the 17th of July 2013 a signature meant equal marriage in England and Wales. After passing through both the House of Commons and House of Lords, the Marriage Act received Royal Assent thus making it law. Even though this does not mean that gay people can immediately get married, the law is now there, awaiting implementation and two people to say “I do”.

However while reveling in the joy of equal rights I came across an article written by Peter Tatchell, a Human Rights campaigner outlining six aspects in which the Marriage Act of 2013 remains discriminatory. I’m sure all of them have some sort of reasoning behind them, and having drafted a few resolutions myself, I know it is always a compromise, but I was still interested to see how many valid reasons I could find behind these six hiccups. The first thing that surfaces from the Act is that the Church of England and the Church in Wales are banned from preforming same-sex marriages. This was to be somewhat expected and in a way was essential to minimise religious opposition, although I still don’t personally believe it is fair for churches to be allowed to continue practicing discrimination. Still I can respect their “traditional” values and thus unwillingness to engage in same sex marriages, or at the very least that it may take them some time.

However, what I find hard to come to terms with concerning this reservation from the Church is that it had to be an explicit ban, and this makes it sound like something descending from the higher echelons of the Church wanting to not only express their own opposition, but hold back anyone else in the community who may be willing to take a more modern stance on the issue. It also seems strange that a church would want to restrict their own freedom to change their mind on the issue by having a ban enshrined in law. It also demonstrates to me that the Church of England are not even willing to make an effort to try to be a part of an evolving society, and this speaks volumes of intolerance, even more then a statement merely opposing same-sex marriage.

Furthermore there are other issues with religion in the bill. Even in cases where a religion is accepting of same sex marriages, registering premises for the conduct of religious same sex marriages are harder to obtain. And worse yet, if premises are shared by multiple smaller religions, you need the consent of all those denominations, giving anti-gay churches an opportunity to essentially veto the use of certain premises for same sex marriages. This again sounds a lot like the old you can sit on this part of the bus, but not that one. If the premise is shared why can’t each group use it however they wish?

Another aspect of the bill is that existing grounds for annulment of a marriage – adultery and non-consummation – do not apply in cases of same sex marriages. I’m not quite sure where this arises from but to me this just reads as an awkward way of avoiding defining what sort of sexual acts count as consummation or adultery. Basically it reads like an escape from having to think of, or discuss, gay sex, which seems not only juvenile but also kind of hilarious. Maybe the right to marriage should include the right to annulment, but personally that is one of the last things on my mind when celebrating the victory of equality. However, I do see how this could be a problem in Ross and Rachel type situations where you get drunkenly married and want to get the marriage annulled, only in our universe Ross and Rachel can get an annulment, but if the same accident happens to Ross and Chandler they would have to wait for a year to file for divorce.

There are also a few other aspects of the law that strike me as a bit odd and even discriminatory. The most obvious example of this is the pension inheritance rights, which remain different in same-sex and opposite sex marriages. In short a same-sex partner is not entitled to inherit the full value of their spouse’s pension if it began prior to 1988. Another source even says that employers are only required to pay survivor’s pensions based on contributions made from 2005 onwards. The only reason I can find for this may be that civil unions only became legal in 2005. I am still stumped as to where the year 1988 comes from. Nonetheless it is quite a big distinction between “gay” and “straight” marriage, which seems to be on the surface unnecessary. There also remains a ban on straight couples having a civil partnership, however this is to be reviewed in the following year and may in that time change, yet is a again a point of separation.

The final discriminatory point about the Act is the fact that it does not restore the forcibly annulled marriages of transgendered people that were a precondition for obtaining a gender recognition certificate. The problem lies in gay couples being able to make a civil union into a marriage with mere paper work, yet it seems transgender people would have to get married again instead of just having their unjust annulment reversed. Among other issues, such as having to obtain a written permission from the spouse for a gender recognition certificate, it seems that the Act, perhaps unintentionally, still sets different standards for trans people.

Peter Tatchell is right, separate is not equal, and it makes me anxious because I’m not sure if we are ever going to get to a stage when we are not separated from society in some way. But for now, for today, we have made great progress and we are allowed to take a break to celebrate that. The Marriage Act of 2013 is not perfect, but neither are we. As much as I like to scan through legislation and rant about it, six is still a small number. It’s less of a problem than it is a reminder. It’s something to work on, but it isn’t the end of the world. As long as we keep working on it, I’m happy.