Across newspapers and social networks the images of happy couples will bear a striking resemblance to those published nine years ago. In 2005, the first civil partnerships took place. This weekend the implementation of the Marriage (Same Sex) Couples Act 2014 finally makes gay marriages legal.
Because the language of civil partnerships was never comfortably absorbed into popular consciousness, civil partners and commentators commonly discussed them using terms such as “husband”, “wife”, “wedding” and even “marriage”. Consequently, observers might be forgiven for wondering what has actually changed. The paradoxical answer is: not very much at all – but also a great deal.
In terms of their legal consequences, civil partnerships are almost identical to marriage, so practically speaking, the same-sex marriages will make little difference to most couples. Neither has the advent of same-sex marriage radically altered the institution of marriage.
While the definition of marriage has changed from explicitly heterosexual to gender neutral, this is not revolutionary. The legal definition of marriage has been altered many times in the history of English law; changes have facilitated divorce, introduced separate concepts of civil and religious marriage, and recognised wives as the equals of their husbands. The introduction of gay marriage simply confirms the fact that marriage is an evolving institution, not a static historical or religious concept.
Some argue that their personal religious understanding of marriage is undermined and threatened by the legalisation of gay marriages. It is difficult to understand how this is so. Religious groups ceased to have a monopoly on the meaning of marriage when civil marriages were introduced in 1836, and care has been taken in drafting the same-sex marriage legislation to ensure that no religious group or individual can be compelled to sanction or carry out a same-sex marriage.
So, upon an inspection of its consequences, same-sex marriage looks rather insignificant. Yet for large numbers of people, both gay and straight, its importance cannot be overestimated. For many, the explicitly “separate but equal” relationship recognition scheme represented by civil partnerships was symbolically demeaning. It suggested that gay relationships were not worthy of the institution of marriage, which occupies such a central place in our society.
This was not just a subjective perception: back in 2004, the decision to legislate for civil partnership rather than same-sex marriage was a political expedient devised precisely because many did think gay relationships should not be treated as equivalent to marriage. A same-sex marriage bill would have attracted considerably stronger opposition and might never have passed; civil partnerships were very much a compromise. But it was unrealistic to suppose that they would be the final word in the legal recognition of same-sex relationships – and they have begun to look increasingly anachronistic and unsatisfactory, especially as other countries have legislated for full marriage rights.
I will be delighted to attend my first gay marriage ceremony later this year. I know that symbolically, and perhaps emotionally, the marriage will be worth a great deal more than a civil partnership would have been for the couple and many of the guests. The feeling that “you can’t beat the real thing”, which will bring added joy to many a gay marriage celebration in the coming months, is one I will share.
But I will struggle to empathise with those who bemoan the advent of gay marriage. Ultimately, no institutions, religions, lifestyles or individuals have been harmed with the passing of the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act. The advent of gay marriage changes virtually nothing – but by validating gay relationships, it will transform lives and spread happiness. That seems like cause for celebration indeed.