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Since 2008 – Progress Through Politics

UK Parliament Passes Landmark Same Sex Marriage Bill – UPDATED

Just a heads up about some news here in the UK which should give those campaigning for equal same sex marriage rights some hope. (I’ll quote from my impending Daily Beast piece and link when the whole thing is published early tomorrow)

By a resounding majority of 400 votes to 175 the House of Commons voted on Tuesday night for the second reading of a bill according equal rights same sex couples.  The government sponsored bill represented an overwhelming victory for those campaigning for gay marriage – a victory many didn’t expect to see in their lifetime. But how did the UK, which often lags behind the US on civil liberties, manage to steal another march on gay rights?

UPDATE: link to the Full Daily Beast article

Nine years ago, in the Civil Partnership Act 2004, the New Labour government created landmark legislation recognising same sex marriages in civil and legal terms.

There are only a few small changes in the rights++ proposed by the new bill   – which still requires line by line reading and a vote in the House of Lords before it becomes law –  but there are two huge symbolic differences.

The first is that it allows religious institutions to recognise gay marriage…


The second cultural shift is that ‘Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill’ was introduced by the Conservative leadership….

I then write about how senior conservatives in the coalition cabinet backed the prime minister, with William Hague, the foreign secretary, George Osborne, the chancellor, and Theresa May expressing open support for the bill before the debate even began.

“Marriage has evolved over time,” they wrote in a joint letter to the Daily Telegraph . “We believe that opening it up to same-sex couples will strengthen, not weaken, the institution. As David Cameron has said, we should support gay marriage not in spite of being Conservatives, but because we are Conservatives.”

I then explain how the co-option of gay rights as a Conservative cause is not an entirely new phenomenon.  Cameron himself has long been a moderniser in this cause, and was one of just 29 MPs to back gay adoption legislation in 2007. Before she had to trim to the right on social matters, the great icon of British conservatism, Margaret Thatcher, voted for the decriminalisation of homosexuality in 1967.

To Damian Barr, a journalist and author of the forthcoming book about Thatcher’s impact on a gay young man growing up in the ’80s and ’90s, Maggie & Me, the success of same sex marriage  bill “is actually a profoundly conservative moment.” “Thatcher believed in including more and more people in traditional institutions,” he told the Daily Beast.  “Support for equal rights actually underpins the institution of marriage,” he said: “It’s part of the Thatcherite vein to include more and more people in bigger institutions that underpin the social fabric and collective narrative. “

The article then goes onto explore, given the close relation between Thatcher and Reagan and conservative policies on both sides of the Atlantic, such a shift is possible on the right of US politics. One salient difference between the US and UK is the level of religious observance.   The 2011 UK census showed 25 per cent of the population describing themselves as ‘atheists’ and only 57 per cent calling themselves ‘Christian’ compared with 6 per cent non-believers and 73 per cent Christian in a recent Pew Poll of the US.

But religion doesn’t explain everthing. Secular France is having a horrendous debate on the issue, with only two MPs from the majority right wing opposition party, the UMP, support the marriage equality bill now before the National Assembly. However, Catholic Spain and Portugal voted for equality in 2005 and 2010 respectively.

So here’s the suggestion from one of my interviewees who has been active in equal rights campaigning on both sides of the Atlantic:

“In America gay rights are seen as a minority issue for a single interest group,” he said.  “Equal rights activists could learn from the British example by trying to reach out to their conservative opponents.”

Food for thought. Certainly stuff for civil discussion.  


  1. slksfca

    Too few in the U.S. recognize that marriage equality is at heart a profoundly conservative idea. When I was young and first coming out, the handful of gays who even spoke about marriage were pretty much dismissed as “heteronormative” or “assimilationist.”

    But this, for me, is an issue that goes way beyond political labels. It is, quite simply, a matter of “liberty and justice for all.”

  2. Diana in NoVa

    which is why, indeed, marriage is a conservative idea.

    People who moan about same-sex marriage (I prefer the term “marriage equality”) are often heard to say that allowing gays to marry will undermine the institution of marriage.

    Not at all: marriage is being undermined by the following factors:  (1) the Pill; (2) divorce; (3) the ability of many women to support themselves decently without ever marrying; and (4) shacking up.

    Hets may choose to marry, to live with a partner, or to remain single but not celibate.  Our gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered brothers and sisters are entitled to the same options.

    Stable married couples buy houses and furniture, soft furnishings and dishes, lawn and patio equipment, dogs and cats.  What could be better for the economy?  

    It doesn’t surprise me that the Tories favor marriage equality.  Tory or Labor, the British are much less paranoid than Americans about a lot of things.

  3. Mets102

    to legislate marriage equality without either first having civil unions, a court decision (The NYS Court of Appeals — New York’s highest court — found that no such right existed in the NYS Constitution), or both.  At the same time, New York also became the first state where a Republican-controlled chamber passed a marriage equality bill.  The GOP controlled the state senate 32-30.  Four Republicans joined with all 30 Democrats to pass the bill 34-28.  That said, New York Republicans tend to be a bit different than their peers from the South.

  4. The first reflex would be to suggest that the difference between the US and the UK is the hyperreligiosity of Americans. But Catholic Spain and Portugal were not deterred and passed marriage equality. What is unique about Casually Catholic France that makes it such a difficult thing for them to consider?

  5. fcvaguy

    My DC marriage is registered in the UK as a domestic partnership. When marriage equality finally passes in the UK, I hope they convert my status automatically and that I don’t have to go through a bunch of red tape.

  6. jlms qkw

    the house of lords, and who will get to sign it, and when?  

    i am so very very pleased about this!  yay!  

  7. Hollede

    I am partial to Cornwall, the land of my mining ancestors, and a beautiful spot on the Isle. Take me to the southern forests and the English Rivera please;~J I also fell in love with the Scottish lake region when I was a kid, so it is a tough choice:~D

    Ahem. Moving out of my fantasy life and back into reality now. Heh.

    Both of our countries have a dreadful history in regards to our gay and lesbian fore-bearers. Think Alan Turing and Oscar Wilde on your side of the pond and the anti-sodomy laws and mob run gay bars (topped with regular raids and beatings by law enforcement) here in the good ole USA. It seems to me that the advance of rights for GLBT people in the US has been almost exponential since Stonewall. The progression was very slow from the 60’s into the 70’s, sped up in the 80’s and moved into hyper drive through the 1990’s into our current and remarkable state of being gay and lesbian throughout the world.

    In 1977 when I was in boarding school in the ninth grade, I remember sitting down in the cellar (our designated smoking room) and reading in Newsweek about the protests for gay rights in Florida and against Anita Bryant. It was the first time I felt proud to be a lesbian and I expected to return to the States and live my life as an openly gay person. Ok, so I was pretty naive, but was still shocked when we moved back ‘home’ and ran right into Jerry Falwell, Ronald Reagan, and Phylis Shoefly. I could not believe that the religious right had taken over Iran and the US in just a couple of years. When Reagan won the 1980 election, I cried my eyes out.

    In 1981, my mother and I moved to Grand Forks from (shudder) north central North Dakota, and as I finished my last year in high school, I also attended the University of North Dakota. Mom was working on her Masters degree and we lived in student housing. It was then I met my first gay people (at least ones I knew about) at a meeting of the nascent UND gay/ lesbian student group. Once I met other gay folks I came out to my parents. Dad was ok with it, but Mom kind of flipped out.

    Heh. Long story but Mom and I eventually worked things out. But my point is that our organization was committed to be open and out in most ways. We organized dances, spoke about being gay and lesbian to students in classrooms all over the university, eventually created events for National Coming Out Day and Gay Pride on campus, and passed a non-discrimination clause for the university through the student senate.

    For some reason I always expected to marry the person of my choice in my lifetime, and anticipated that being gay was not going to be viewed with contempt and outright hatred within a few decades. Many of my friends thought I was crazy, but I had no doubt that while not perfect, a country that could move toward equal rights for women and greater acceptance for people of color, would eventually welcome their gay brothers and sisters out into the sunshine.

    In my opinion, this has occurred because of the courage of so many who have come out over the years, allowing non gay people to ‘meet’ gay folks and discover that we don’t have fangs and horns. I know for my part I have changed a lot of minds and the likes of Ellen DeGeneras, Melissa Etheridge, and the Doogie Howser dude have helped millions view gays and lesbians in a better light. Add to that the literal and figurative dying off of archaic beliefs, we are moving toward a more inclusive country and world.

    It is funny when I ask younger people what they think about gay and lesbian issues and the typical response is “I guess I don’t think about it much”. Heh. I have also noticed that people are starting to look at those who have a problem with this issue, instead of looking where they are pointing. Most kids these days seem to intuitively understand the biggest homophobes are more worried about their own sexuality and project that fear on others around them. In that way homophobia is a problem for everyone, as anyone can be accused of being gay at anytime. This has been used throughout history as a means of shutting down a lot of straight folks as well as gay and lesbian people.

    Sorry about the long rant…back to my pop tart now…

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