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Equal marriage: A long revolution

Equal marriage is the big revolution. Traditionally, the model of marriage was one where a woman was given to a man (or, very occasionally, to two or more men) to be his wife. He might in some cultures have the legal right to take another wife or more wives, but she didn’t. (Even in cultures where women can have two or more husbands, the power to pick and choose is not on the woman’s side: the convenience of having the same wife shared between two or more brothers is for the men who take long journeys to trade and see no reason to have more than one woman at home to bear their children and do the unpaid labour.)

Feminism changed that. Over two centuries ago, one of the basic reforms of the French revolution was to change marriage law so that either spouse could divorce the other and to change inheritance law so that all the children of the marriage inherited an equal share, daughters as well as sons. Less than two decades later, Jane Austen politely argues in Mansfield Park that Fanny Price, despite being a poor dependent with no special looks or sparkling charm to recommend her (nothing but a dogged courage in the face of adversity) has the right and indeed the obligation to stand firm against a marriage to a man she does not love and whose character isn’t admirable – no matter how rich he is. A few years later again, Charlotte Bronte passionately argues that Jane Eyre, who has walked away from a wealthy man offering to make her his mistress, and is contemplating immolating herself in a missionary life in India, will refuse a passionless marriage to a man who does not care for her: she has a right to care for herself, to refuse a man whom she knows does not love her as she deserves to be loved.

In the UK – indeed, in most of Europe, North America, Australia, and in many other countries – marriage law now gives both spouses identical and equal legal rights, responsibilities, and obligations to each other. At that point – when there is no legal difference between husband and wife – there is no reason for the state to deny legal marriage to same-sex couples, and, starting 22 years ago in Denmark, gradually the ban on same-sex couples marrying has been lifted – one by one in the first decade and then with a tidal rush in Europe as the ECHR ruled that EU states ought not to deny the tax and pension benefits of marriage to same-sex couples. (Poland is the only EU state that still persistently defies this court ruling, though not all EU states have lifted the ban on same-sex marriage nor provided a registered partnership equivalent to marriage.)

Many opponents of lifting the ban on same-sex couples marrying, argue that if there’s no ban on same-sex couples getting wed, there can be no ban on polygamy or incest. This is incorrect. The ban on incestuous marriage remains intact in every country: and a legal framework that supports same-sex couples marrying is one that will not support polygamous marriage.

The general form of polygamous marriage is one which is fundamentally unequal. The man has the right to add wives: no woman has the right to add husbands. (In the special case scenario in which a woman may be married to two or more men, she still does not have the right to add husbands of her own choice.) In this framework, a woman’s rights, obligations, and responsibilities towards her husband are fundamentally different from a man’s rights, obligations, and responsibilities towards each of his wives. You cannot take this kind of legal framework for marriage and open it up to same-sex couples: same-sex marriage can be instituted only where marriage law is equal.

Creating a polygamous marriage legislation that did not affect anyone in a monogamous and which gave equal rights to all marriage partners would be far more complex than even creating civil partnership legislation equal and separate from marriage (and the Civil Partnership Act of 2005 is the size and weight of a telephone directory). My first thoughts about how it would have to work entail each poly marriage being dissolved by divorce each time the participants want to add someone new – leaving each participant free to leave with their share of the community property and future family income if they so choose. That would protect stable long-term poly relationships but ensure that wealthy men could not simply keep adding new wives to their stable… which happens in the real world wherever equal marriage is not supported by law and social custom.

Sixty-one percent of Scots now agree that the ban on same-sex marriage should be lifted. (Scottish Social Attitudes Survey findings, 2010) When John Mason put forward an amendment against the idea that people would be “forced” into involvement with same-sex marriage (a common trope amongst campaigners against lifting the ban) he got three signatures, and thirty-seven MSPs from every party in the Scottish Parliament except the Tories signed Patrick Harvie’s amendment in celebration of Scotland’s move towards equality – and one of the signatories to Mason’s amendment was the openly-homophobic Andy Walker. We already have civil partnership, and we’ve had equal marriage for mixed-sex couples for over 35 years. Lifting the ban on civil marriage for same-sex couples won’t be a big revolution. But a worthwhile one.

  • Sign the Scottish Youth Parliament’s petition here: Love Equally
  • The UK government’s petition site is not particularly well organised – there are three separate petitions circulating now to lift the ban on same-sex marriage, and a good official petitions site would only permit one.  The one I think is best-worded is Equal Marriage Rights regardless of gender or sexual orientation. The one with the most signatures so far is Legalise Gay Marriage. The third (mentioned just for the sake of fairness) is Allow same-sex marriage in the UK. Since all three are effectively asking for the same thing, a sensible government would allow a debate in the House of Commons when the total signatures on all three got to a hundred thousand, but a cynical person might think they are exercising so little control over split petitions  in order to ensure that as few as possible hit the magic number.
  • And Peter Tatchell’s Equal Love campaign – seeking to overturn the ban on civil partnership for mixed-sex couples and civil marriage for same-sex couples – also has a petition you can sign.

Also, and perhaps more effectively than any online petition – write to your MP and your MSP.

 

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Filed under LGBT Equality, Scottish Politics