Celebrations are taking place across England and Wales for newly-married same-sex as well as opposite-sex couples. Soon equal marriage will be in place in Scotland too. This is cause for rejoicing not only for the newly-weds, their families and friends but also the wider community.
Marriage equality is all the more of an achievement because of the extent of prejudice which has had to be challenged over the past few decades. This was deeply embedded in the British establishment until comparatively recently, and remnants persist.
This is not to say that objections to opening up marriage are necessarily prejudiced. But certainly the dominance of negative stereotypes would have ruled out serious consideration of change of this kind. In addition, until relatively recently, there were few safeguards against most kinds of discrimination.
Just sixty years ago, in March 1954, the trial of Lord Montagu of Beaulieu, Michael Pitt-Rivers and Peter Wildeblood was in the headlines. They were convicted and sentenced, as were many others, at a time when gay sex was illegal.
A year later Wildeblood, a journalist, wrote Against the Law. This powerful book, along with a wider campaign backed by Church of England leaders, helped to convince many people that jailing gays was cruel and unjust. In 1967 gay sex was decriminalised in England and Wales. Scotland followed later.
However it was still widely believed that same-sex relationships were psychologically unhealthy. This was strongly contested by an increasingly visible lesbian and gay community along with heterosexual psychiatrists and psychologists willing to look more carefully at the evidence. In April 1974, just forty years ago, the American Psychiatric Association backed their trustees in declaring that homosexuality is not a mental disorder. In the UK too, professional attitudes were changing.
As more lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people came out of the closet, heterosexuals became more aware of human diversity, though discrimination was still common. Meanwhile in churches and other faith groups, the notion that same-sex partnerships are always morally wrong was being challenged. However advances towards equality met resistance, fuelled by prominent politicians and sections of the media.
Yet views were shifting as people saw the quality of love between same-sex couples, and this influenced the law. Fifteen years ago, in 1999, ex-Royal Navy serviceman Martin Fitzpatrick was in legal dispute with Sterling housing association, which sought to evict him from the home he had shared with John Thompson, his partner of twenty-five years, who had been the official tenant.
After an accident in 1986 which left Thompson badly injured, Fitzpatrick gave up his job to care for him twenty-four hours a day, feeding and nursing him until his death eight years later. The law lords found in his favour: the couple constituted a family. As Lord Nicholls of Birkenhead put it, “Where sexual partners are involved, whether heterosexual or homosexual, there is scope for the intimate mutual love and affection and long-term commitment that typically characterise the relationship of husband and wife.”
A decade ago, a Civil Partnership Act as well as a Gender Recognition Act were passed. However many believed that, at best, such partnerships shared the essential characteristics of good marriages, and should be recognised as such.
Some people are uncomfortable with the notion of same-sex couples marrying, while others feel that it is unnecessary. Yet the use of the term helps to reflect the fact that love between a couple has wider social (and, some believe, spiritual) dimensions, and deserves to be adequately celebrated and supported. In addition, many heterosexuals too now reject the notion that rigid gender roles are essential to, or indeed desirable for, marriage.
So the last weekend of March 2014 will be memorable for a change that not only marks the strides made towards equality and justice but also publicly recognises the value of self-giving and trustworthy love, whatever the gender of the partners.
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