The UK Equal Love Campaign, coordinated by human rights activist Peter Tatchell, has progressed significantly in the last few days with the historic filing of a legal application to the European Court of Human Rights. The ECHR application was announced on 2 February 2011 at an Equal Love briefing in Committee Room 17 of the entirely apt and austere House of Commons, London. The legal application was then simultaneously posted and faxed to the European Court in Strasbourg. Also in attendance were several of the sixteen plaintiffs, including the lead same-sex couple, Rev Sharon Ferguson and her partner Franka Strietzel, and the lead heterosexual couple, Tom Freeman and his partner Katherine Doyle.
Hosting the briefing, Green Party MP Caroline Lucas said:
“Some fairly well known singer-songwriters once said that ‘all you need is love’. But sadly it’s not as simple as that if you’re an opposite-sex couple wanting a civil partnership, or a same- sex couple wanting a civil marriage. This is a campaign about equal love – it is not about asking for special treatment for gay couples or straight couples. It is about everyone enjoying the same rights regardless of their sexuality.”
THE STORY SO FAR
“Since November, four same-sex couples were refused marriage licenses at register offices in Greenwich, Northampton and Petersfield. Four heterosexual couples were also turned away when they applied for civil partnerships in Islington, Camden, Bristol and Aldershot. All eight couples received letters of refusal from their register offices, which we have used as the evidential basis to challenge in the European Court of Human Rights the UK’s exclusion of gay couples from civil marriage and its prohibition of straight civil partnerships. Since there is no substantive difference in the rights and responsibilities involved in gay marriages and heterosexual civil partnerships, there is no justification for having two mutually exclusive and discriminatory systems,” explains Mr Tatchell.
There is strength in the fact that the Equal Love case highlights the two separate but equal institutions of civil marriage and civil partnership as discriminatory, divisive and exclusionary in that access to each institution is dependent upon the sexuality of the couple.
We would do well to remember that there is only one way towards social equality.
Katherine Doyle is one of the opposite-sex plaintiffs who, with her partner Tom Freeman, is seeking the option to enter a civil partnership. She explains that, “We have been together for nearly five years and would like to formalise our relationship. Because we feel alienated from the patriarchal traditions of marriage, we would prefer to have a civil partnership. As a mixed-sex couple, we are banned by law from doing so. By filing an application for civil partnership, we are seeking to challenge this discriminatory law. Our decision is also motivated by the fact that we object to the way same-sex couples are prohibited from getting married”.
At the official press launch of the campaign, last December, Tom and Katherine summarized their views on marriage inequality and their own personal reasons, as a couple, for representing the Equal Love Campaign.
We have been amazed by how many people have reacted so strongly to the Equal Love campaign – both against it and in favour. This shows that the ways in which people choose or have the right to choose to give legitimacy to their relationships is acknowledged as being central to their identities.
I want to explain mine and Tom’s take on the straight half of the Equal Love campaign in terms of equality, fulfilment and choice.
Our original idea, back in the summer of 2009, to try to get a civil partnership started off as a plan to highlight the inequalities faced by couples such as Sharon and Franka and the other gay couples seeking Equal Love, but as we gradually realised the positive value of straight civil partnerships, moved towards a concern for fulfilment and choice for all – it moved from the negative to the positive.
We are among a great many couples who choose not to marry because they object on grounds to do with feminism, discomfort with heritage and terminology or simply because it doesn’t feel right. Opening up Civil Partnerships to heterosexual couples will bring the legal benefits previously only attainable through marriage to these couples. The government always seems keen on maximising the numbers of people who want to have their relationships recognised in law by contracting a legal partnership with a fellow citizen. Here is a way of enabling a great many more to do this – those who want to do just this and nothing more, to move away from the associations marriage carries with it. The right to choose will thus bring an increase in full participation in society, and work to minimise the numbers of people who feel excluded.
Just as important a question as ‘why?’ is ‘why not?’ Civil Partnerships have already been provided for by the law. What purpose could excluding us on the grounds that we are of a particular sexuality possibly serve? All institutions should be equal ‘by default’ if there is no good reason for them to be otherwise.
The introduction of civil partnerships for gay couples only suggested that there is something fundamental in the nature of sexuality which dictates that long-term committed relationships between same-sex and opposite-sex couples are fundamentally different and must be recognised as such in law.
Civil partnerships thus began as part of an effort to preserve separateness, and it was only in this old, outdated spirit that straight people were excluded from them. In the context of the worldwide trend towards gay and straight couples enjoying the same rights through the same processes, it is becoming clearer that the only important thing about marriage or partnership, in modern times, is love between two people. But the strongest riposte to this old prejudice is the inclusive one – to embrace the new options that have been thrown up by the process of change and, since they are already here, make the most of them by incorporating them into a new framework offering maximum choice. Why not increase people’s levels of choice when the groundwork has already been done? There is no reason why we shouldn’t, now, in the era of more complete equality we are moving in to. We have now an opportunity to turn a negative into a positive, and retrieve something of real value from an old, flawed situation. This is an historic opportunity, and it is too good to miss.
So while it is obvious that marriage equality is now on the way – the fight for gay equality is very far from over, but it is a one-way railway of increasing toleration, and decreasing homophobia – another fight must not be forgotten: one for increased choice for all, whether gay or straight.
To us, the applicants, and many other heterosexual couples, getting married would be a compromise. This is the most personal of life experiences and, it follows, if there is one area where compromise should not be accepted, this is surely it.
So don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater – don’t let it become just a gay issue. Most people, at some point in their lives, will fall in love and want recognition for their relationship. This is basic to the modern human condition – it is not a gay issue or a straight issue but a human issue.
The Equal Love campaign is for us about working for complete equality, the utmost fulfilment, and maximum choice – for all.
We are yet to see the full impact of this initiative. This is just the start of what promises to be a ground breaking move towards redefining the nature and purpose of marriage. As a Human Rights, rather than “just” a Gay Rights, issue, the Equal Love campaign has great weight behind it. There is a growing level of public support both nationally and internationally; conduct a web search and you will find numerous references to Equal Love UK in conventional mainstream media and on a wide variety of privately held websites and blogs – from Manchester to Malawi. The words of our altruistic allies will enter forums of discussion where the LGBT community have been often ignored and this broader discourse can only serve to enhance a shift towards more positive public perceptions about the need for equality in our world.
Photographs: Chris Houston
For more information on the EQUAL LOVE CAMPAIGN:
David E. Watters is planning a second book and is looking for couples to contribute. Much like the commendable mission of this incredible site, the book will explore the diversity of romantic relationships.
If you would like to take part in this project please contact David E Watters: DavidWatters@nbiassociates.co.uk