The notion that allowing same-sex couples to marry constituted the recognition of a long-suppressed human right was a key plank of the Government’s case for it. Introducing gay marriage, we were led to believe, would be a civil rights milestone, like black South Africans voting for the first time.
The analogy was a powerful one, but not convincing. Almost no one thought of a right to same-sex marriage before the year 2000, and it exists in no treaty of international law. As recently pointed out here, the European human rights court at Strasbourg continues to dismiss the idea of any such right, and to uphold the right of states to uphold conjugal marriage in law for the sake of children and the common good.
Prior to Parliament’s decision last year to reduce marriage to a mere partnership, between any two people, we pointed to statistics abroad (e.g. Spain) as well as our own polling in the UK to show that in practice, very few gay people were interested in marrying (and when they did, were far more likely to divorce than the average). The independent survey we commissioned also showed that most gay people simply didn’t accept Stonewall’s argument that a distinction in law between civil partnership and marriage constituted discrimination, and that most had no intention of ever marrying — especially if they were already in a civil partnership.
When the first gay weddings took place in March this year, we wrote:
What is at stake is that, in order to accommodate one group’s desire to have their love legitimated by the state — a dubious idea in itself — the state has emptied marriage of its essential meaning. It has changed marriage from an understandable, recognizable, conjugal institution, one hallowed by faith and civil society, to an ersatz, hollowed-out arrangement that cannot be called an institution at all. That matters because it makes marriage less interesting, less attractive and less important. People — gay or straight — will increasingly come to ask: why do I need a piece of paper from the state to prove I love someone? If marriage is simply “about” the love between any two people, what has the state got to do with it anyway?
It turns out that the widespread indifference among same-sex couples to the possibility of marrying was even greater than we foresaw.
The Office for National Statistics’s first figures on the take-up of same-sex weddings were recently published. According to the ONS:
Over the three day period from 29 March to 31 March 2014 there were 95 marriages of same sex couples. There were 351 marriages in April, 465 in May and 498 in June.
The ONS compares this low take-up with civil partnerships after they were introduced for same-sex couples in 2005.
Between 21 December and 23 December 2005, 1,227 civil partnerships were formed, as couples in long-standing relationships formalised their relationship as soon as possible. In comparison 95 marriages of same sex couples took place in the first 3 days.
The contrast is remarkable: 1,227 civil partnerships versus 95 gay marriages in the first three days after each became law. A sociologist at Kent University asks why, and suggests two reasons:
So why have relatively few lesbian and gay couples decided to tie the knot this year? First, civil partnerships got there first and offer pretty much all of the rights and entitlements that go with marriage. A significant proportion of couples that might have chosen to get married are already in civil partnerships so many might not feel the need … Equally, the government’s decision to keep civil partnership as an option for same-sex couples alongside marriage means that some gay and lesbian couples are opting for civil partnerships rather than marriage…
But surely same-sex marriage was about ending the heinous discrimination imposed on gay people by the law’s distinction between marriage and civil partnership?
As both the ONS and Mike Thomas point out, these statistics do not tell the whole story. In December, the law will allow couples in civil partnerships to “upgrade” their status to marriage, and some will no doubt choose to do so.
But in reality, why bother? What difference will it make? As the tiny take-up of gay marriage shows so far, it is almost impossible to tell the difference between a civil partnership — a contract between two cohabiting individuals for the sake of property and tax — and a same-sex marriage.
Some will use these statistics to prove that the fears about marriage redefinition are overblown, and that same-sex marriage can co-exist alongside conjugal marriage without affecting it.
But that doesn’t wash. Now that civil marriage has been gutted and stripped of its intrinsic meaning for everyone — gay or straight — heterosexual couples are more and more likely to reach the same conclusion as gay people.
Alternatively they will ask, as does a columnist in the Canadian Globe and Mail (same-sex marriage has been legal in Canada since 2005) why there should not be a broader selection of options, including a temporary, three-year “suck-it-and-see” version?
Hers is the same logic behind same-sex marriage: a malleable institution without intrinsic meaning. Rather than an institution to whose norms (fidelity, permanence, sexual exclusivity) we are invited to conform, it has become an institution that can and should be adapted to suit the lifestyles and desires of contracting individuals.