Over the last few months I’ve had several wedding invitations land on my doorstep. Every wedding is special, but these invites have been truly unique: to attend some of the first same sex weddings that are happening this weekend. From the couple in Brighton getting married at one minute past midnight – who can claim to be the one of first to marry under the new rules – to the solicitor in Twickenham who wrote to say how long she has been waiting for this day – this weekend means so much, to so many people.
Each ceremony taking place on Saturday is personally significant, of course, but also nationally symbolic.
From this Saturday, gay couples will finally be able to get married in exactly the same way as straight couples who choose to have civil ceremonies. For the first time in British history, all couples standing in front of a registrar can use exactly the same contracting words to take the person they love as their husband or wife in front of their friends and family. A legally recognised union between a couple of the same sex will no longer be marriage in all but name. It will be marriage, full-stop.
This is real progress and marks a significant turning point in the way we promote equality in Great Britain. I am proud to be part of a Government, led by a Conservative Prime Minister, who made it happen.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. I also recognise that some people are still getting their heads around the idea that two men will legally – and by right – be able to call themselves husband and husband and two women wife and wife. I’m aware that there are some who might not be against gay marriage, but remain unconvinced on its necessity and, not unreasonably, want to know why it’s happening now. So let me try and explain.
I am not married (I told the House of Lords when I was steering the Bill through our House that as long as George Clooney remains available, I’m prepared to wait). But like many people, I believe marriage to be fundamental to a strong society. When we hear two people exchange their marriage vows, whether in a place of worship or at a registry office, we are witnessing a couple commit to the kind of values we all believe are important – loyalty, respect, trust, honesty, forgiveness. These values not only underpin the couple’s relationship, they also strengthen and extend families and in doing so immeasurably enhance our communities.
Since the end of 2005 same sex couples have been able to become civil-partners. The vast majority of people are quite relaxed about this now, which is amazing bearing in mind just how little time has passed. But we mustn’t forget just how hard many thousands had to fight for that right, and what a ground-breaking change in the law this was. Gay and lesbian couples suddenly had the opportunity to acquire the same legal rights as married straight couples. Many of us received invitations to “weddings” and smiled when our gay friends called their same-sex civil partner their “husband” or “wife”.
But we knew these couples weren’t really married.
For a while, we went along with this pretence. We tried to convince ourselves that civil partnerships were a good enough substitute. They were, after all, the only thing on offer. But as we have witnessed more and more same sex couples become civil partners and live together as married couples in all but name, it has become increasingly obvious, and perhaps contrary to what some may have previously thought, that there is no difference at all in the reasons why couples who love each other – straight, gay and lesbian – commit to each other for life. And once we accept there is no difference in purpose, how can we justify a difference in treatment?
That’s why the Government extended marriage to couples of the same sex. We want to acknowledge, accept and respect same sex couples on the same and equal terms as couples of the opposite sex. There is no reason not to.
But we all have the right to move at different paces when faced with change. Same sex marriage is new and very different from what we have grown up with. I am not for one second trying to say it is not. But this change - allowing same-sex couples to marry - will not affect the nature or quality of existing marriages or new marriages between men and women. The Act simply allows all those who honour the institution of marriage and want to cement their relationship in this way to do so, regardless of their sexual orientation.
Even so, it remains absolutely legitimate and a fundamental right for anyone to believe and to say they believe that marriage should remain only between a man and a woman. And we have made it clear in law that all religions are unable to marry couples of the same sex unless they explicitly opt to do so. No religion can be forced to change its marriage doctrine against its will.
We have made it possible for religious belief in marriage to sit comfortably alongside what Parliament has allowed in civil law.
No couple embarks on marriage lightly. It requires hard work, patience, effort, acceptance of one another’s faults and willingness to overlook each others shortcomings as much as it does love, affection and romance. It’s a profound and deep commitment which deserves public recognition and celebration. So this Saturday I will be raising a toast to every couple – gay and straight – starting out on a new life together. I hope you will join me. Marriage is a wonderful thing, and I’m proud to be part of a Government that had the conviction to open the door to all of those who recognise that.