Activist and writer Peter McGraith married his partner David in the first ceremony conducted under the Marriage Act 2013 covering most of the UK. Here, he asks what effect it’s had on gay and lesbian couples – and on marriage itself.
Do we care if marriage equality contributes to the demise of gay culture, identity and community?
We ought to think what might be lost, as well as gained, if a new generation of gay men and lesbians were to rush into marriages without firstly having experienced that blast of emancipation that follows on from the realisation that you are that thing that some people loathe or pity and you feel utterly thrilled with it.
This experience of asserting a positive identity, outside of mainstream sexual morality, makes us question what we’ve been taught about gender, social hierarchies, religion, the family and the impropriety of sex. And perhaps it encourages us to have mature, rational and honest relationships.
More than 50% of gay men’s relationships are sexually non-exclusive, while lesbian women are more typically wedded to serial monogamy, which, to the surprise of some, can lead to its own problems.
A Ministry of Justice response to my Freedom of Information request for same-sex divorce statistics provides an early indication of a probable trend. For every gay male couple that filed a divorce petition, 3.2 female couples did so.
Over recent years, civil partnership dissolutions of lesbian couples have held steady at roughly twice the level of gay men’s civil partnership dissolutions.
This concerns lesbian comedian and writer Rosie Wilby, who has researched attitudes to monogamy and open relationships for her stand-up shows.
“Straight women tend to have the luxury of having a female best friend, alongside a male partner,” she says.
“Lesbians are expected to be best friends with their partner, so there’s a whole heap more expectation on just one person. Then you lose that best friend every three or so years.”
Rosie worries about the mental health and financial implications of lesbian women striving too hard for an emotional and sexual monogamy – for a perfect marriage.
In 2005, 1,227 couples formed civil partnerships in the first three days of the Civil Partnership Act. By comparison, only 98 gay and lesbian couples married in the first three days of marriage equality in England and Wales.
The take-up of same-sex marriage is slightly below government expectations, but the effect of the law change is being felt widely.
Older gay men and lesbians are now fielding questions about whether they might get married at some point. Such talk is seen as genuinely supportive or as an embarrassing attempt to show liberal credentials.
I have witnessed long-established relationships fall apart like wet paper over one partner’s mistaken expectation that the other might want to solemnise their love.
A twenty-something who told me that older relatives would ask him when he was in his teens, “Are you courting, yet?” described how all enquiry about his personal life had dried up after he came out as gay. He now reports that relatives and colleagues seem overly keen to marry him off just because he has a steady partner. Even teenagers are subject to pervasive assumptions that they will marry and have children.
They should be careful what they wish for as they casually use language like “husband-hunting” and broadcast their partner specifications online. The room for diversity, for queerer set-ups, non-conformity and community could be squeezed out by normativity.
Some 15,098 couples had converted their civil partnership or entered new marriages within the first fifteen months of gay marriage.
Having the legal right to marry has propelled some previously discreet individuals from naught to nuptials in an accelerated coming-out. People who didn’t feel able to declare their same-sex desires during their youth have now come out when able to present themselves with a supportive partner by their side, respectable and engaged to be married.
A recent same-sex wedding fair in London attracted a sizeable number of gay and lesbian visitors from cultural backgrounds that have been known for hostility towards homosexuals.
An accomplished, preened Muslim man was there, planning on being married to his South American partner by an imam. He was too modest to acknowledge that he might be a pioneer within his religious community.
Moreover, present was an impressive young British-Asian school teacher from a family that cares about social standing. She and her beautiful lawyer girlfriend were planning their perfect wedding.
They made me think about a Scottish-Indian gay guy and his lesbian sister who were clubbing acquaintances from my youth. They were the tightest of accomplices in dodging parental pressure to marry people of the opposite sex.
Marriage may not be the apotheosis of queer emancipation, but a broad acceptance of same-sex marriage will reduce coerced marriages and unsuitable marriages that gay men, lesbians and bisexuals might have otherwise entered into for cover.
Fissures and doubts have opened up within traditional families and religious communities which had been more solidly opposed to homosexuality. Parents who previously believed that their grown-up children’s sexual orientation would bring opprobrium upon the family are coming to recognise and accept the legal status of same-sex marriage, the favourable reception it has had in the British media and the shift in wider social attitudes.
Importantly, same-sex marriage can now become a tool for leveraging basic human rights for sexual minorities around the world.
When gay and lesbian couples in Northern Ireland have no access to the unfairly privileged institution of marriage, gay life in the province is not unaffected by it. If anything, the impasse on marriage equality has meant that Northern Ireland’s lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) community has pulled together.
The Stormont Assembly has debated gay marriage five times now and it voted in favour of equality last November – then the Democratic Unionist Party used its veto to block it.
The Prime Minister told a reception for the LGBTI community at 10 Downing Street in July 2013 that he wanted to export same-sex marriage around the world, but what could he possibly achieve until he has asserted all the influence he can in bringing marriage equality to Northern Ireland?
One-time supporters of Section 28, with a few exceptions, now hold up gay marriage as an example of British values at their best. It’s about respecting difference. An achievement that allows us to view ourselves as morally superior to the Taliban and so-called Islamic State. Perhaps all at Stormont will show us the same respect when it next votes on this matter.
I was in the House of Commons with my kids on the evening of 5 February 2013 when our MPs voted 400 to 175 in favour of gay marriage, and while this victory was cheered by the 60 or so activists who gathered in a committee room to await the result, we weren’t cock-a-hoop. We all had our misgivings.
In addition, lest we lose sight of why we’re glad to be gay, we should remember that while equality is everyone’s right, progress is the goal.
As Professor Matt Cook of Birkbeck, University of London has put it, will the new divide be between married and single rather than between gay and straight?