A brief history of equal marriage

The last fifteen years have seen conflict in the UK and United States on rights for homosexual couples. Here are the defining moments.

Fact File
  • 1300 The year treatise prescribed that sodomites should be burned alive
  • 1994 The age of consent for gay men was reduced to 18

Early Blair Years


One of the major successes of the Tony Blair government was its record on gay rights. Blair’s 1997 cabinet included Britain’s first openly gay minister, Chris Smith, and the government immediately set about ending legislative discrimination against gays and lesbians. By bringing the age of consent for homosexual sex down from 18 to 16 in 2000, as well as by repealing Section 28, a Thatcher-era law that prevented schools from “ teaching…the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship”, large strides were taken toward equality. British law finally caught up with the general attitudes of the population, which for many years had been much more tolerant of alternative lifestyles than the legislative framework.


Civil Partnerships

The Civil Partnership Act was announced and passed in 2004, with the first ceremonies taking place in December 2005. The act was designed to give same-sex couples identical rights and responsibilities to those of married, heterosexual couples. Partners are entitled to the same exemptions in terms of insurance and inheritance tax, the same social security and pension benefits, and the ability to get parental responsibility for a partner’s children. Civil partners are also accorded next-of-kin rights, and civil partnerships can only end through death, dissolution or annulment. However, until 2010 it was forbidden for civil partnerships to take place in religious institutions, a policy designed to blunt any opposition to the legislation from religious groups

One straight British couple have twice tried to register as civil partners and been refused

Civil partnerships were hailed as a huge step forward for gay rights, and the semantic distinction between them and marriage was often ignored. BBC reports of the first ceremonies, for example, spoke of “weddings” and of partners getting “married”. As civil partnerships became accepted, and bedded down as an institution, the debate about marriage largely faded into the background.

However, there were demands that heterosexual couples be entitled to opt for civil partnerships rather than marriage, as is the case in some European countries such as France. One British couple, Tom Freeman and Kathleen Doyle, have twice tried to register as civil partners and been refused. They justifiably feel that having a law exclusively for same sex couple segregates people according to their sexuality, and seek equal treatment.


During this period the question of marriage equality was largely absent from the active political debate in the UK, with civil partnerships being seen by most as an acceptable legislative solution. Nevertheless, polls taken during these years still consistently showed that a majority of Britons supported the right of same-sex couples to get married if they wanted.

In the United States, however, the issue was a source of deep controversy, and polarized national opinion. The vehemence with which same-sex marriage was denounced by right wing Christian groups meant that there could be no acceptable ‘compromise’ solution, along the lines of civil partnerships in the UK. As of 2012, six states (Iowa, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, Vermont and Connecticut) had recognized same-sex marriage, but others – especially southern states – had articles in their constitutions that explicitly defined marriage as between a man and a woman.

Perhaps the most high-profile example of how the same-sex marriage debate divided opinion was Proposition 8 in California, which was a legislative initiative proposed by a campaign group opposed to same sex marriage. It stated that marriage in the state could only be between a man and a woman, thereby over-riding rulings given by California’s Supreme Court earlier in the year that stated that gays and lesbians had a right to marry. The proposition was passed on November 2, 2008, by 52% to 48%, the vote being held on the same day and as part of the same election that sent Barak Obama to the White House.


With same-sex marriage the major battleground for the gay-rights movement in the US, the debate began to generate more interest in the UK also. In the run-up to the 2010 general election, all the major parties signalled their willingness to look at the issue. It should be noted, however, that with a significant majority of Britons in favour of equal marriage, this was not the most politically risky stance, with George Osborne promising to “consider the case” and Harriet Harman calling it a “developing area.”

In the run-up to the 2010 general election, all major parties signalled their willingness to look at the issue

At this point, only the Lib Dems came out fully behind marriage equality. During the campaign, Nick Clegg repeatedly affirmed his commitment to bringing about equal marriage. Nevertheless, this did not appear in the Lib Dem’s manifesto, as it had not been voted on by the floor of that year’s party conference.

The Equalities Act 2010 paved the way for willing religious institutions to offer their premises for civil partnerships. Faith groups such as Quakers had already indicated their readiness to offer civil partnerships. Currently, civil partnership ceremonies can take place in religious premises if the secular aspect of the ceremony is kept separate from the religious.


Following the elections to the Scottish Parliament in May, the new SNP government brought forward consultations on marriage equality following a well-publicized campaign by the Scottish National Union of Students and the Lib Dems to highlight the issue. The consultations (a series of questions that could be answered by members of the public online or in writing) were held between September and December 2011 and looked at both allowing civil same-sex marriage and removing the ban on religious ceremonies for civil partnerships. Currently, civil partnership ceremonies can take place in a willing religious institution (such as the Quakers and some liberal synagogues), in England, but not in Scotland.

With more than 77,000 responses, the consultation was by far the biggest in the history of the Scottish parliament, but resulted in a figure of 67% opposed to same sex marriage. This number is in direct contradiction with other poll results, notably the Scottish Social Attitudes Survey of 2010 that found 61% of Scots in favour of same-sex marriage. Campaigners say the result can be put down to a strong campaign from church groups opposed to the measure.

At the same time, in Westminster, the Lib Dem side of the coalition pressed for change. Former equalities minister Lynne Featherstone announced at the Lib Dem conference that consultations were to begin in March 2012, and David Cameron won applause at the Tory conference when he said “ I support gay marriage” in his leader’s speech. In spite of this, campaign groups such as Stonewall contend that consultations could have been held much earlier, and that the government has shown little appetite for pushing the issue.


In March the government launched it’s consultations on same-sex marriage as it had promised. The proposals put forward would see same-sex couples entitled to civil marriage, but make no changes to the rules governing religious marriage, which would continue to be between a man and a woman. At the time, Labour’s Yvette Cooper announced that this did not go far enough, and that the religious option should be open to same-sex couples if offered by religious organizations on a voluntary basis. Nick Clegg has espoused similar views. In June the consultations closed. The Home Office told us the response has been “unprecedented” and “massively pro”, indicating that well over 100,000 responded to the consultations.

In July, the Scottish government announced the results of its consultations. The Holyrood government pledged to introduce both civil and religious same-sex marriage, but was careful to stress that no religious institution would be compelled to offer it, and that measures would be put in place to “protect” celebrants of any faith group who disagreed with same-sex marriage. On September 4, the bill was formally presented as part of the Scottish government’s legislative programme for the next year. In the wake of this announcement, religious groups in Scotland have gone on the offensive, with the Catholic Church urging its parishioners to petition Holyrood against same-sex marriage. The Head of the Catholic Church in Scotland, Cardinal Keith O’Brien, has become the public face of the anti-equality movement, and is often outspoken and ‘American’ (or, radical) in his attacks on same-sex marriage.

In the re-shuffle announced by David Cameron on September 4, Lib Dem Lynne Featherstone, seen as a champion of marriage equality, lost her job as equalities minister. She is replaced by Conservative Maria Miller, who is also Culture Secretary — Equalities is part of the Home Office. The combination of the roles could dilute the equality brief and, more pertinently, Miller has previously voted against gay adoption rights, against a bill that would have given lesbian couples the right to IVF, and against the Racial and Religious Hatred bill.

September 2012—December 2012

Nick Clegg is expected to re-iterate his commitment to allow religious same-sex marriage at the up coming Lib Dem conference. This is likely to galvanize religious groups opposed to same-sex marriage.

One such group, the Coalition for Marriage, is due to hold a fringe meeting at the Conservative conference in October. This is likely to be the opening salvo in an attempt to shelve the plans. The Coalition for Marriage is a Christian organization with links to radical evangelicals, but the Muslim Council of Britain and the Catholic Church have also taken strong stands against same-sex marriage.

Stonewall are confidently predicting the results of the consultations to be announced by the end of the year, but cannot be more specific than that when it comes to dates. The Home Office also says the results will be known by the end of 2012.


Stonewall predict that the legislation legalizing civil and religious same-sex marriage will pass in Scotland in 2013, with the first marriages taking place by the end of that year. They also say that they would be “amazed” if proposals for same-sex marriage in England and Wales are not in the Queen’s speech in May 2013.


Given the support of all the main parties, any legislation announced in the 2013 Queen’s speech should go onto the statute books by April 2014, with the first same-sex marriages taking place before the end of the year.



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