On Saturday, it became legal for same sex couples to get married in Britain for the first time. This was met with pride and celebration in the mainstream media, and rightly so. How could you not be happy for two people finally getting their chance to make a legal commitment to each other, recognised in the same way as everyone else’s? Sadly, it’s not quite that simple. Whilst for some, equal marriage can be seen as a huge step forward in the struggle for equal rights for those who identify as LGBTQ, but, for others, it’s not even a step in the right direction.
Marriage is a problematic institution. Under all the cake, flowers and dresses there lies a tradition which is not guaranteed to be based on mutual love and trust. Marriage has been used to trade people, especially women, as property. Marriage is still used today by governments to reward those who conform to a family structure, which it acknowledges to be superior, in the form of tax breaks. So from the start it is easy to see why a wedding is not necessarily a symbol of any kind of equality. This is all before we even look at the legislation that has been enacted at the weekend. Whilst the Equal Marriage Act clearly suits some, it is still leaving others out, particularly people who identify as trans*. Now, if you want to change your gender through getting a Gender Recognition Certificate, you have to gain the permission of your spouse. This means that if your spouse refuses to sign, you will have to divorce them in order to get your rights recognised—this clearly creates a loophole which allows the marriage to be threatened immediately in pursuit of gender recognition. Not to mention the fact that all of the legislation is written with the implicit assumption of the gender binary (that people are all either male or female without exception), so if you do not identify as either, there is still no space for you in the institution of marriage.
Meanwhile, LGBTQ people are more likely to be homeless, to attempt suicide and to self-harm. They are more likely to be bullied and physically attacked. Equal marriage is not solving any of these problems. It is easy to say that it sends a message that being gay is OK to a younger generation of straight and gay people, but it does not help a LGBTQ teenager who is facing suicide right now. Yet government programmes to find a solution to these problems, which are much more pressing, are thin on the ground. Years’ worth of resources in the queer community have been used up in the campaign for equal marriage, whilst people within that community still face daily struggles without support.
Part of the problem here lies in the fact that equal marriage is being presented so momentously by the British media as the be all and end all for gay equality, while some simple acknowledgment that we have an enormously long way to go would help put the situation all back in perspective. The coverage itself has demonstrated it through its choice of couples to portray over the weekend, who were all invariably white and middle class. Sandi Toksvig gained a lot of coverage for renewing her vows with her partner Debbie on stage at the Royal Festival Hall, whilst two gay couples who married on the stroke of midnight in Camden and Brighton were also focused on by the press. There is an underlying current of integration with the status quo which lies within this coverage, depicting couples getting ready for their wedding ‘normally’ despite their sexuality. Why should queer people want to become ‘normal’? Why should they be grateful for acceptance which involves being seen as ‘quite like straight people really’ from a society which constantly excludes them? There are more questions raised by equal marriage than there are answers given by it.
So as Stonewall this weekend ran an advert which said ‘We now pronounce you EQUAL’, it seems clear that this is an equality granted to a very specific proportion of the LGBTQ community. An equality which is undoubtedly better than none at all, but one that needs to be a springboard, not a ceiling.