“Bi Do”: Bisexuals and Marriage

BCN 112 cover

This originally appeared in BCN issue 112, April 2012

Getting the marriage we want out of the consultation

Most BCN readers will have heard by now that the government has launched its consultation on same-sex civil marriage.  Civil partnerships and marriage are being treated separately but both are facing changes: the first religious venues have now been licensed to host same-sex civil partnerships, while in Scotland and in England & Wales there are separate processes to reform marriage to let men marry men and let women marry women; lawmakers both north and south of the border are still quite committed to the idea that there are two definite and discrete genders.

On March 15th the latest phase in all this began as the Government Equalities Office opened up its consultation on same-sex marriage in England and Wales.  This has surprisingly strong government backing, with Home Secretary Theresa May – not historically a friend of LGBT equality – writing in The Times that “marriage should be for everyone, regardless of their sexual orientation.”  The one limitation is that it is ‘civil marriage’ – it could not be conducted in religious premises, just as was the case until recently with civil partnerships.

The Home Office summarises the key proposals of the consultation as being:

  • to enable same-sex couples to have a civil marriage i.e. only civil ceremonies in a register office or approved premises (like a hotel)
  • to make no changes to religious marriages. This will continue to only be legally possible between a man and a woman to retain civil partnerships for same-sex couples and allow couples already in a civil partnership to convert this into a marriage
  • civil partnership registrations on religious premises will continue as is currently possible i.e. on a voluntary basis for faith groups and with no religious content
  • individuals will, for the first time, be able legally to change their gender without having to end their marriage.

Our readers’ survey last year showed more than 80% support for change in this direction: indeed, you wanted to go further and open up civil partnerships to mixed-sex couples.

So having drafted a response to the consultation from BCN, I circulated it to various bi groups around England and Wales in the hope of getting more bi voices.  It was sadly noticeable that Stonewall’s published submission to the government on this issue talked about the law on opposite-sex couples as being something that only affected heterosexuals, so a bi voice highlighting that this is not the case seems like a good thing to add to the mix.

BCN then hooked up with Bisexual Index and BiUK for a combined national submission while the local groups added the more personal flavour that their frontline work allows for.

Anti Lobby

There have been some eye-catching declarations from the campaigns against same-sex marriage.
Veteran Tory headline-grabber Norman (now Lord) Tebbit piped up that “Within the can of worms that Mr Cameron is determined to open there are several nests of snakes. Why should a marriage be confined to just two persons? What is the barrier to the marriage of sisters, brothers or even parents and children?”

It’s a fine debating tactic, pretending your opponents are trying to legislate something quite unrelated to the matter at hand.  Though for me the only barrier to marriage of more than two people is the terrifying complexity under the tax and benefits system of what happens if Tom, Dick, Harry, Mary and Sue are all married to one another and then Harry decides she wants to divorce Mary but none of the others.

Sir Roger Gale, MP for North Thanet, was in similar panic about the effect on the English language: “If we are to re-construct official and business documentation and to replace “Husband and Wife” with “spouses” and “partners” where will this stop? Will Shakespeare and Milton and The Holy Bible be re-written also? Will only “correctly” expurgated literature be allowed to be used in the classroom?”

Er… probably not, Roger, though I might do a whipround to send a specially rewritten set of texts just for you: it’d cost a bit but it’d be worth it just for the look on your face.  With a covering letter praising your commitment to defending your three very traditional marriages and your equally traditional two divorces.

Petitions

The carefully named “Coalition For Marriage” launched a petition calling on the government to drop its plans and preserve marriage as a ‘heterosexual’ (…I know..!) institution.  This drew a lot of support and prompted a counter petition from a hastily-formed “Coalition For Equal Marriage”, which I was pleased to sign BCN up as a supporter organisation to – alongside a host of political, LGBT, faith and humanist groups.  At the time of writing, the C4M have garnered a lot more signatures than the C4EM – they have done a lot of work organising petition sheets at religious venues and suchlike.  C4EM are playing catch-up against a well-resourced lobby that knows if it loses on same-sex marriage once then the genie will be out of the bottle.

I think it would be great to have bi-positive submissions from lots of people and organisations – so to help get you going, I will run through the main questions and outline what the BCN/BI/BiUK submission highlighted.

Question 5:  The Government does not propose to open up religious marriage to same-sex couples. Do you agree or disagree?
We said religious marriage should be opened up to same-sex couples, though any individual institution should not be compelled to provide wedding services with which they are not comfortable – any more than we would expect them to be compelled to marry a mixed-sex couple they felt to be inappropriate for some reason.

Question 6: Do you agree or disagree with keeping the option of civil partnerships once civil marriage is available to same-sex couples?
We urged keeping this option available as well as marriage, and extending this to allow mixed-sex couples to also choose a civil partnership as an alternative to marriage.

Question 7: If you identify as being lesbian, gay, bisexual and were considering making a legal commitment to your partner would you prefer to have a civil partnership or a civil marriage?
We voiced support for keeping both open.  Some people do not like marriage because it has had past meanings such as making a woman ‘property’.  Some do not like civil partnerships for religious reasons or because they mark out a couple as different due to their sex.

Question 8: The Government is not considering opening up civil partnerships to opposite-sex couples. Do you agree or disagree with this proposal?
Disagree – civil partnerships should be opened up to mixed-sex couples. BCN’s reader survey showed more than 80% support for making marriage and civil partnerships be both available to any couple regardless of gender.  Further, keeping Civil Partnerships restricted on the basis of sex would mean that anyone recording themselves as in an CP ‘outs’ themselves as bisexual or gay, whereas a married person will no longer be indicating anything about their likely sexual orientation

Question 14: Do you have any comments on the assumptions or issues outlined in this chapter on consequential impacts?
We stressed that faiths who wish to conduct same-sex marriage should not be stopped by Government from doing so.

Question 15: Are you aware of any costs or benefits that exist to either the public or private sector, or individuals that we have not accounted for?
The Government’s impact assessment in the weighty document that comes with the questions states that there will be no increase in demand for same-sex marriage over the current level for civil partnership. We think this is incorrect and there will be, as when Civil Partnerships were first introduced at the end of 2005, a rush of support initially. Those who have felt Civil Partnerships insufficient, or who have been waiting for this law change to happen since it was signalled some time ago, may cause a ‘blip’ in marriage statistics. We do not however expect a significant increase in demand after that first year.

Question 16: Do you have any other comments on the proposals within this consultation?
The government should be more ambitious than the proposal as it stands.  BCN’s readers survey a few issues back showed support for more far-reaching reform.  So we urged for both marriage and civil partnerships to be open to any couple regardless of gender, and further for this to be legislated in a manner that recognised the situations of e.g. nonbinary gender identified people: making gendered words (“husband”, “wife”) optional relieves the pressure to fit in one gendered box: “spouse” for example as a neutral alternative.

You can respond online here
www.homeoffice.gov.uk/publications/about-us/consultations/equal-civil-marriage/
It stays open until 14th June 2012 so there is plenty of time to download the questions and consider them before answering.