Just because civil partnerships between same-sex couples are legal in England we tend to think that marriage has been legalised. It hasn’t. The English law states that marriage is only marriage if it is between one man and one woman. I do not see this only as an outrageous affront to same-sex couples, but as more generally sexist, and as a grave insult to the human rite of marriage. The idea that law may dictate who together enters into emotional, intellectual and physical unity pronounced and celebrated in a marriage ceremony is absurd. The only people fit to choose are those entering into this committment of love, sharing, and lifelong loyalty.
My views on marriage are humanist, that is to say that I view marriage as an expression of our humanity. I can not see marriage in a cynical way, expecting it to fail, or blame it for the church, the law, or society’s failings in its name. Marriage hasn’t had a perfect track record. Many marriages have failed. Marriage has been used as a weapon. It has been used to control and disempower. However, this history and these associations cannot taint the concept of marriage or the wholly natural impulse we have to join together under the banner of marriage.
I am very aware that opinion is divided on the issue, and that not all same-sex couples wish to marry – instead preferring the quite separate option to ‘wed’ in a civil partnership. My case for the term marriage to be applied to all those wishing to express their intentions to share their lives with one or more particular partners is that there is no justifiable reason not to. Objections to certain types of relationships come from societal rather than human concerns. The only concerns worth our considering are limited to the sincerity and seriousness with which the partners in question are approaching marriage and making their commitments to each other. The question is not whether marriage is good for society, but whether marriage is good for personal happiness and fulfilled lives.
Civil partnerships and marriages may differ legally but within a humanist wedding ceremony they are treated with exactly the same degree of respect and are looked on as having exactly the same status. What is more, I will most certainly refer to a same-sex partnership as a marriage if that is how the couple see their union. Even if the lived experience of marriage and civil partnership is the same, the symbolic distinction matters to me. Humanist wedding ceremonies are chosen for their symbolic significance, and while they can be used to mitigate the inequality of the legal situation, I would still like to see same-sex marriages given the legal status and recognition they deserve. Couples who feel unaffected by the distinction may not see this as an issue. Not everyone wants to fight to be allowed to marry, while to them marriage seems to be conforming to a repressive and outdated institution. Not everyone can see a reason for calling civil partnerships ‘marriages’, but I hope that every thinking person with a regard for human happiness can see no reason not to.
Click here to read about the British Humanist Association’s campaign for legal humanist weddings and legal same-sex marriage.