A lot of people got rather upset over the week about the apparent u-turn on the Tory government's commitment to having proper civil marriages for same-sex couples, one that isn't just a stick on, additional relationship form to prevent rocking the boat of more conservative folk. I certainly agree strongly with the trans communities that the plans treat transpeople in an extremely unfair way, invalidating previous marriages (one activist describes it as "confiscating") on transition and refusing to re-recognise their marriages after transition is complete. However, there are fundamental flaws to the whole gay marriage argument that totally disregards more vulnerable LGBT people and more importantly, turns a blind eye to the problems still experienced by gay folk in general.
There is a misconception out there that people "gain rights" by marriage. This is not the case: ask any hetero couple and they will tell you that certain responsiblities are conferred as well as rights. And they actually do lose a small few things. For example, taxation laws have (thankfully) progressed to the point where traditional married couples are not advantaged. In the social welfare sphere, they are very much disadvantaged. To give you an idea, because of the legal and social recognition of heterosexual relationships - regardless, by the way, of marital status - a heterosexual couple with one job and with a non working mother is treated differently in welfare terms as a married family. I know of many lesbian couples where one partner has children from a prior relationship (or, well, other methods) and the other works. It has been perfectly acceptable for such couples to be able to cohabitate without nosy social welfare officials noticing that Mum isn't truly a "single parent." If such a thing happened in the hetero community, cries of "fraud" would abound. But not in the gay community: there is an embarrassed silence about the fact that non recognition of relationships has enabled greater individual freedoms with regard to the state. They really don't interfere, at least not when it comes to welfare. I was pretty much able to sail into a dole office in the UK 11 years ago and sign on without having to consider my partners financial circumstances (which was rather fortunate, as she pretty much contributed nothing). Yet in an equally abusive hetero relationship, I would have to declare his income and probably lose entitlement to whatever pitiful amount I got at the time.
Yes its fraud, and yes, its widely practiced all over, but nobody dares to consider what happens when informal relationships are picked up by officialdom.
And this is the problem with civil marriage: it confers responsibilities which both straight and gay people don't think fully through. And I suspect, its very much one of the reasons for the huge level of cohabitation of recent years: far from being a "threat" to marriage, most people who cohabitate have actually thought about it and are not sure - yet, or maybe at all.
And finally, there is the big problem for many - the visibility. The reason why many people stay in the closet is when you come out, you kind of come out everywhere: school, college, work, family, friends, neighbours - everything. The closet was, in a sense, a kind of way of going "off grid" in terms of relationships. It was a kind of "safe space", unadulterated by commonplace social expectations. But some people don't want to be public, don't want to be talked about, don't want to be "the only one." A lot of people recoil in horror at the idea of work colleagues discussing their lives, or neighbours speculating. And as a Telegraph article pointed out this week, when you come out, you drag your family out also - regardless of what they think.
The thing is, up until now, you could fly under the radar, refer to herself as your housemate when it suited, keep a level of privacy appropriate to your environment. But no more. My siblings used to ask me when we were tying the knot (this, by the way, is more than 5-6 years ago!) I personally found it easier to be out to avoid endless speculation, which was funny as my ex hated it. But for some people, it can generate real problems: I wouldn't fancy being my exes current girlfriend, with two teenage sons in a staunchly loyalist part of the north. Forget being "out" there. And there sure as hell will be no white wedding for that one. Even on my current client site, I've never disclosed by sexuality to anybody, because I've heard enough racist comments to know that where one kind of bigotry is, another lurks beneath the surface. This has led to some terribly amusing situations though, and ironically, is kind of empowering for all the wrong reasons. Here's the odd thing. I've noticed, with the handful of other unmarried, partnerless, childless girls: nobody ever asks about our private lives (what goes for celebrities actually doesn't go for private citizens, as 2DayFM Australia are about to learn). Or anything really. There is no more speculation than there is about single straight guys. And thats kind of good.
When civil partnership was introduced, so also was a facilitation for tax purposes that you could somehow declare to the taxman your new tax status without having to tell them you were married. Nothing said so loudly (and yet so surreptitiously) that there was still a sense of discreet embarrassment about homosexuality in Ireland that nobody is willing to discuss. In fact, we actually bury it deeper each time. And the whole civil marriage lobby has failed utterly to address this - or even admit that its a real problem, and will be even more so when civil marriage finally gets here. And this is the crux of my issue with the gay marriage lobby, they've buried our demons deeper and further than every before, denied and ignored the real problems we face, and increasingly become a perceived trendy leftist elite that is out of touch with reality of lives living in a tough economic environment. And by continuing to prioritize civil unions in the same way, this continues, and it totally fails to prepare us for the next wave of backlashes, which we can already see is looming in the UK with the consultation exercises dismissal of 500,000 negative responses.