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Sarah Brown on gay marriage

March 21, 2012

Tomorrow’s Cambridge First will publish a letter from Cambridge city councillor and Pink List stalwart Sarah Brown. As I’m not sure whether it will make it onto our website – our letters handling can be quite erratic – I thought I’d publish it in full here.

The paper will also have a “Have your say” page on gay marriage tomorrow as well which can be seen online here from midnight. You can read the E-edition here.

“Last week the Government launched a consultation into marriage equality in England and Wales.
Assuming legislation on equal  marriage is passed in this parliament, it will mark nearly a decade since the signing into law of two sibling pieces of legislation, the 2005 Civil Partnership Act and the lesser known 2004 Gender Recognition Act.

These two acts together changed the landscape for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people in the UK, but they were both half-measures. They created a situation that satisfied neither those LGBT people seeking equal treatment before the law, nor their critics who wanted to retain the status-quo.

The Gender Recognition Act allowed transgender people to gain legal  recognition of their gender. This granted them marriage and employment protection rights, which other people took for granted, but at a cost – if you were in an existing marriage or civil partnership, you had to have it annulled first, otherwise your rights were kept from you.

This was more than an inconvenience; it had profound consequences. A woman who would be seen as such were she naked in a gym changing room would be treated by the law as a man, including being locked up with male prisoners if she was to be given a custodial sentence by a court.

The Civil Partnership Act created a form of relationship which was  “separate-but-not-quite-equal” for same-sex couples wanting to recognise their commitment to each other with a marriage.

Despite civil partnerships commonly being referred to as “gay marriages” by the press and public, they do not confer the same rights as a marriage. Being regarded as next-of-kin when abroad is not assured, even in countries which have full marriage equality, for example. Couples in marriages where one partner had undergone gender transition were treated particularly unfairly by these half-finished laws. Some of the strongest marriages around were, in a cruel irony, subject to state-coerced divorce, with gender recognition being used as both the carrot and the stick for those who refused to end what had become, in effect, a same-sex marriage. Lib Dem Equalities Minister, Lynne  Featherstone, described this treatment as “cruel and unusual”.

I was one of those who suffered  confiscation of my marriage. One spring morning in 2009, my wife and I stood before a judge and had our marriage annulled. We had  convinced ourselves that this was a matter of bureaucracy, that a few days later when we underwent a civil  partnership ceremony nothing would have changed, but it wasn’t true.

We left the court in tears and holding hands. Less than two weeks later, when a registrar pronounced us “civil partners”, it felt like the final indignity. It was very clear to us that the state regarded our relationship as second-class. We still celebrate the anniversary of our marriage, the real one. This year should have been our 11th anniversary. It is to us, but to the state that’s a  fiction; our marriage never existed – it has been erased.

The plans the Government is now consulting on will end this for those who come after.

Divorce will no longer be the price for legal recognition and protection, and same sex couples will be able to be married in civil ceremonies. I am proud that Liberal Democrats in the coalition government are delivering this; we are the only one of the three main parties to have marriage equality as party policy.

I would like to see the proposals go further. While churches that don’t want to marry same-sex couples won’t have to under the proposals,  lobbying by some churches has resulted in proposals that will ban those  religions that do want to conduct same-sex marriages from doing so.

It is an affront to religious freedom that one sect presumes to speak for all in this way. While civil partnerships will remain for those same-sex couples who want them instead of a marriage, they will not be extended to opposite-sex couples who feel such a status  better reflects the nature of their relationship. Finally, those marriages which were confiscated by the state, such as mine, will not be reinstated.

I will be responding to the government’s consultation by asking them to go  further; to do the job properly this time, to not give in to the bullying of a few religious figures who presume to speak for all, and to put right the grave injustice of state-mandated divorce. I urge your readers to do the same.

Those wishing to respond to the consultation can find out more at http://www.abouttime.org.uk/

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