Yesterday the UK House of Commons voted overwhelmingly to pass the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill, which would give gay and lesbian couples the same marriage rights as heterosexuals. Since 2004, British same-sex couples have been allowed to enter into civil partnerships, giving them the same property, tax and welfare benefits as heterosexual married couples. However, same-sex partnerships were not classified as marriages under British law, and civil partnership ceremonies could not take place in religious venues.
David Cameron, the Conservative prime minister of the coalition government, first announced his support for same-sex marriage in 2011. In December 2012 he confirmed that, under his envisioned plans, gay couples would be able to marry in religious buildings–although he added that no religious institution would be forced to perform same-sex marriages.
Yesterday’s vote saw British MPs vote in favor of same-sex marriage by a margin of 400 to 175. During a heated seven-hour debate, lesbian and gay MPs spoke out about their own experiences. Conservative Margot James said, “Having been different for most of my life, I can assure you that being treated as equal is very welcome indeed”. Fellow party member Mike Freer addressed his colleagues with a question: “I sit alongside you in committees, in the bars and the tea rooms … when it comes to marriage, why are you asking me to stand apart?”.
However, opponents were equally vocal. Conservative MP Matthew Offord claimed the Bill would open the way for polygamous marriage, and Senior Conservative Sir Roger Gale compared the change to allowing siblings to marry. Much has been made of the fact that less than half of the Conservatives supported the bill, with 127 voting Yes, 136 voting No and 40 abstaining.
The Conservatives–often known as the “Nasty Party”–has a mixed record on gay rights. In 1988, it was Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government which introduced Section 28, a piece of legislation dictating that “A local authority shall not intentionally promote homosexuality… [or] promote the teaching … of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship.” Section 28 was abolished after a government vote in 2003, and in 2009 David Cameron apologized for what was long seen as a deeply homophobic piece of legislation.
The Labor government’s 1997–2009 rule saw much more political progress for the British gay community, perhaps paving the way for yesterday’s historic show of support for gay equality. In 1999, the ban on gay men and women serving in the army was lifted. In 2000, the gay age of consent was made equal to that of heterosexual couples: It was reduced from 18 to 16 and altered to include lesbians (who had been invisible under previous age of consent laws). In 2002 it became legal for same-sex couples to adopt children.
In order to become law, the same-sex marriage bill still has to pass through the House of Lords later this year. More controversy is sure to follow, with opponents of the bill claiming same-sex marriage constitutes a threat to religious freedoms and to the “institution” of marriage. However, as Ben Summerskill, chief executive of Stonewall (Britain’s “lesbian, gay and bisexual charity”) points out, “The commons majority seen tonight–much larger than for most normal government business–will make it very difficult for peers to suggest that the bill should be rejected.”