Why is same sex marriage so controversial?

Its opponents may well have a darker motivation than they admit.

Ever since the debate about same sex marriage was launched last year I've been wondering what all the fuss is about.

Obviously, opening what has previously been an exclusively heterosexual legal status to couples of the same gender was going to cause some controversy. There was opposition from traditionalists to the creation of civil partnerships in 2004, though you wouldn't know it to listen to most of them today. Allowing gay couples to adopt children was once controversial. So was equalising the age of consent at 16. So was reducing the age of consent for same sex partners from 21, which happened as rececently as 1994. These measures always attract opposition, often from the churches. 

But the opposition to same sex marriage has been of a different order. Some of it has been quite bizarre.

600,000 people have signed an online petition opposing any "redefinition" of marriage to include gay couples. MPs' postbags have bulged, swelled by a write-in campaign preached from the pulpits of many churches. Senior Tory figures have warned of mass defections of party members. Religious leaders have spoken in apocalyptic terms of what will befall society should the proposed change go ahead. Scotland's Cardinal Keith O'Brien suggested that the move was akin to legalising slavery. One openly gay Conservative, Conor Burns, has spoken of his shock at the tone of some of the correspondence: "I don’t know what kind of God some of those people who have contacted me from religious groups believe in," he said, "but he’s certainly not compassionate or loving."

Around 50 MPs voted against civil partnerships in 2004. It was reported at the weekend that up to 180 Conservative MPs may rebel (on a free vote) in today's debate. We shall see. But at a time when poverty is rising, the economy - to put it politely - becalmed and the NHS, the education system and the police in organisational chaos, you have to wonder precisely why for so many people same sex marriage has become such a big deal.

It's worth remembering that for all the heated debate the proposed change is almost entirely cosmetic. Civil partnership already gives a couple all the legal rights of marriage, as opponents of the Same Sex Couples Bill never tire of pointing out. All they lack is the ability to say that they are legally married. How can a single word be so important?

The nearest thing to a coherent argument against same sex marriage goes something like this. The majority of human cultures have always seen in the union of a man and a woman the basic building-block of society. Marriage isn't merely an arrangement between the couple, but anchors the wider social realm - and, like it or not, homo sapiens comes in two distinct sexes (with some fuzziness around the edges, perhaps, but let's not complicate things too much). Above all, marriage is about the family, about the raising of the next generation. Therefore it is rightly regarded as in some sense sacred. Its heterosexual nature is part of its intrinsic nature: some go on to argue that "same sex marriage" is an oxymoron, or at best a legal fiction.

But if marriage is mainly about children, what about marriages which are infertile, or where the couple is past childbearing age, or where one of the partners is terminally ill or incapacitated? In none of these cases do proponents of traditional marriage object. These are said to be exceptions to the general rule. What they fail to explain is why a marriage where the partners are of the same sex might not equally be considered an exceptional case. At present, more marriages take place between heterosexual couples who intend not to have children than are ever likely to take place between gay couples.

If campaigners for "traditional marriage" care so much about formalised, monogamous heterosexual relationships, should they not be concentrating their efforts on preventing marriage breakdown, perhaps by making divorce more difficult, than on frustrating the desire of a relatively small number of same-sex couples to tie the knot? To be fair, some do campaign on more general issues around the state of marriage - but rarely, it seems to me, with anything like the intensity they bring to bear on their obsession with same-sex unions. 

I've come to the reluctant conclusion that same sex marriage inspires such passionate opposition mainly because it represents the last symbolic move towards full equality of esteem for gay couples. Legal equality they already have, or close enough: civil partnerships represent the substance of marriage without the name. But the name matters, because without it those who have never quite been reconciled to gay rights can convince themselves that heterosexual marriage is still a qualitatively different from and superior to its homosexual equivalent. While the law reflects this distinction, all is not lost: opposite sex marriage is still special, therefore heterosexuality is still special, still normative rather than merely the majority preference. 

Civil partnerships, however unwelcome they seemed at the time (and the Catholic Church still opposes them) are quite useful in this regard. On the one hand, they can be held up as evidence that same sex marriage is unnecessary, a symbolic distraction, because gay couples now have legal rights. (And also as evidence that the speaker is not homophobic, because "I support civil partnerships".) But on the other, the distinction between the two forms of public union reinforces, perhaps even creates, the idea that heterosexual and gay relationships are different types of thing. 

It would be untrue to say that support for civil partnership is the last refuge of homophobia in modern Britain; gay people still face much more serious forms of hatred and discrimination. It's a sign of progress that the section of religious and political opinion that 45 years ago fought the legalisation of gay sex contents itself today with arguing about the meaning of a word. But the vehemence of the opponents of equal marriage, out of all proportion to any effect that the proposed change could possibly have, suggests a darker motivation than they admit or even realise.


Loren Cowley and Michelle Ricketts after their wedding in Sydney. Photograph: Getty Images
Belief, disbelief and beyond belief
Getty Images.
Show Hide image

Clive Lewis interview: I don't want to be seen as a future Labour leader

The shadow business secretary on his career prospects, working with the SNP and Ukip, and why he didn't punch a wall. 

“Lewis for leader!” Labour MP Gareth Thomas mischievously interjects minutes after my interview with Clive Lewis begins. The shadow business secretary has only been in parliament for 18 months but is already the bookmakers’ favourite to succeed Jeremy Corbyn. His self-assuredness, media performances and left-wing stances (he backed Corbyn in 2015 and again this year) have led many to identify him as Labour’s coming man.

On 19 September, I met Lewis - crop-haired, slim and wearing his trademark tweed jacket - in Westminster's Portcullis House. He conceded that he was flattered by the attention (“It’s lovely to hear”) but was wary of the mantle bestowed on him. “This place has lots of ex-would-be leaders, it’s littered with them. I don’t want to be one of those ex-would-be leaders,” the Norwich South MP told me. “I don’t want a big fat target on my head. I don’t want to cause the resentment of my colleagues by being some upstart that’s been here 18 months and then thinks they can be leader ... I’ve never asked for that. All I want to do is do my job and do it to the best of my ability.”

But he did not rule out standing in the future: “I think that anyone who comes into this place wants to do what’s best for the party and what’s best for the country - in any way that they can.”

Lewis, who is 45, was appointed to his current position in Labour’s recent reshuffle having previously held the defence brief. His time in that role was marked by a feud over Trident. Minutes before he delivered his party conference speech, the former soldier was informed that a line committing Labour to the project’s renewal had been removed by Corbyn’s office. Such was Lewis’s annoyance that he was said to have punched a wall after leaving the stage.

“I punched no walls,” he told me a month on from the speech. “Some people said to me ‘why don’t you just play along with it?’ Well, first of all it’s not true. And secondly, I am not prepared to allow myself to be associated with violent actions because it’s all too easy as a black man to be stereotyped as violent and angry - and I’m not. I’m not a violent person. Yes, it’s a bit of fun now, but very quickly certain elements of the media can begin to build up an image, a perception, a frame ... There’s a world of difference between violently punching a wall and being annoyed.”

Lewis said that he was “happy with” the speech he gave and that “you’re always going to have negotiation on lines”. The problem, he added, was “the timing”. But though the intervention frustrated Lewis, it improved his standing among Labour MPs who hailed him as the pragmatic face of Corbynism. His subsequent move to business was regarded by some as a punishment. “Do I think there was an ulterior motive? I’ll never know,” Lewis told me. “I’m confident that that the reason I was moved, what I was told, is that they wanted me to be able to take on a big portfolio”.

Nia Griffith, his successor as shadow defence secretary, has since announced that the party will support Trident renewal in its manifesto despite its leader’s unilateralism. “Jeremy Corbyn deserves credit for that,” Lewis said. “I think everyone understands that Jeremy’s position hasn’t changed. Jeremy still believes in unilateral disarmament, that is his modus operandi, that’s how he rolls and that’s one of the reasons why he is leader of the Labour Party ... But he’s also a democrat and he’s also a pragmatist, despite what people say.”

Lewis, himself a long-standing opponent of Trident, added: “You need a Labour government to ensure that we can put those nuclear missiles on the table and to begin to get rid of them on a global scale.”

He also affirmed his support for Nato, an institution which at times Corbyn has suggested should be disbanded. “The values that underpin Nato are social democratic values: liberty, democracy, freedom of expression. Let’s not forget, it was Clement Attlee and the New Deal Democrats that initiated and set up Nato. It’s about being in it to win it, it’s about winning the arguments inside Nato and making sure that it’s a force for good. Some people would say that’s impossible. I say you’ve got to be in it to be able to make those changes.”


Clive Anthony Lewis was born on 11 September 1971 and grew up on a council estate in Northampton. It was his Afro-Caribbean father, a factory worker and trade union official, who drew him to politics. “My dad always used to say “The Labour Party has fought for us, it’s really important that you understand that. What you have, the opportunities that working people and black people have, is down to the fact that people fought before you and continue to fight.”

After becoming the first in his family to attend university (reading economics at Bradford) he was elected student union president and vice president of the NUS. Lewis then spent a decade as a BBC TV news reporter and also became an army reservist, serving a tour of duty of Afghanistan in 2009. He was inspired to enlist by his grandfather. “He fought in Normandy in the Second World War and I used to go back over with him and see the camaraderie with the old paras ... Whatever people’s views of the armed forces, that’s one thing that no one can take away, they generate such friendships, such a bond of union”.

Lewis told me that his time in the military complemented, rather than contradicted, his politics. “I think many of the virtues and values of the army are very similar to the virtues and values of socialism, of the Labour Party. It’s about looking out for each other, it’s about working as a team, it’s about understanding. The worst insult I remember in the army is ‘jack bastard’. What that said was that you basically put yourself before the team, you’ve been selfish”.

He added: “People have to remember that the armed forces do as democratically elected governments tell them to do. They don’t arbitrarily go into countries and kick off. These are decisions that are made by our politicians.”

After returning from service in Helmand province, he suffered from depression. “I met guys who had lost friends, seen horrible things and they had ghost eyes, dead eyes, it’s the only way I can describe it. People that I saw had far more reason to have depression or worse. Part of my negative feedback loop was the fact that I felt increasingly guilty about being depressed because I didn’t feel that I had the right to be depressed because I knew people who’d seen far worse ...  I’m now told that is quite common but that doesn’t make it any easier.”

Lewis added: “It makes you realise that when the armed forces go abroad, when they do serve on our behalf, what they do, what they go through, that’s not something that anyone can take away from them.”

In May 2015, he was one of a raft of left-wing MPs (Richard Burgon, Rebecca Long-Bailey, Kate Osamor, Cat Smith) to enter parliament and back Corbyn’s leadership bid. As shadow business secretary, he believes that Brexit and Theresa May’s economic interventionism offer political openings for Labour. “I feel debate is moving onto natural Labour territory. But not the Labour territory of the 1970s, not picking winners territory. It’s moving to a territory that many on the left have long argued for, about having a muscular, brave, entrepreneurial state which can work in partnership with business”.

He added: “We can say we’re the party of business. But not business as usual ...  I think there are lots of people now, and businesses, who will be aghast at the shambles, the seeming direction we seem to be going in.

“The British people have spoken, they said they wanted to take back control, we have to respect that. But they didn’t vote to trash the economy, they didn’t vote for their jobs to disintegrate, they didn’t vote to see their businesses decimated, they didn’t vote to see a run on the pound, they didn’t vote for high levels of inflation.”

On the day we met, an Ipsos MORI poll put the Tories 18 points ahead of Labour (a subsequent YouGov survey has them 16 ahead). “I’m not too spooked by the polls at the moment,” Lewis told me when I mentioned the apocalyptic figures (he has a potentially vulnerable majority of 7,654). “Nobody wants to be where we are but I’m quite clear that once we get up a head of steam we’ll begin to see that narrow. I definitely don’t have any doubts about that, it will begin to narrow.”

Lewis is a long-standing advocate of proportional representation and of a “progressive alliance”. He told me that Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the Green Party should have fielded a single pro-European candidate in the recent Witney by-election (which the Conservatives won with a reduced majority) and that he was open to working with the SNP.

“There are lots of people, including the Scottish Labour Party, who are aghast that you can say that. I think it has to be put out there. I want to see a revival of Scottish Labour but we also have to be realistic about where they are, the time scale and timeframe of them coming back.

“I’m not talking them down, I’m simply saying that we want to see a Labour government in Westminster and that means asking some hard questions about how we’re going to achieve that, especially if the boundary changes come in ... If that means working with the SNP then we have to look at that.”

Even more strikingly, he suggested that Labour had to “think about talking to parties like Ukip to try and get over that finishing line.”

Lewis explained: “If Ukip survive as a political force these coming weeks and months they’re obviously pro-PR as well. I despise much of what Ukip stand for, it’s anathema to me, but I also understand that it could be the difference between changing our electoral system or not ... These are things that some people find deeply offensive but I’ve not come into politics to duck the tough issues." 

He praised Corbyn for “having won” the argument over austerity, for his “dignified” apology over the Iraq war and for putting Labour in surplus (owing to its near-tripled membership of 550,000).

“History will show that Jeremy Corbyn was someone who came in at a time when politics was tired, people were losing faith in it, especially people who come from the progressive side of politics.

“Whatever people think of Jeremy’s style, whatever they think of his leadership, whatever they think of him personally, you can’t take that away from him. He’s revived politics in a way that we haven’t seen in this country for a long time. I know he’s got his doubters and detractors but I think ultimately he’s made our party in many ways stronger than it was a year ago.”

I asked Lewis whether he expected Corbyn to lead Labour into the next general election. “Yes, I do. And I think it depends when that general election is. If it’s next year then most certainly.

“If it’s 2020? That’s a question for Jeremy. I think, as I understand it, he is going to but I don’t know the inside of his mind, I don’t know what he’s thinking. I haven’t heard anything to suggest that he has anything other than the intention to lead us into a general election and to become prime minister.”

Of his own prospects, he remained equanimous. “Always be wary of Greeks bearing gifts. It’s lovely to hear but I know my own fallibilities and weaknesses.

“I haven’t come from a background where I’ve had it imbued in me from an early age that I’m destined to lead or to rule. I don’t have that arrogant self-belief, the sense of entitlement that it’s coming my way or should do. I can’t believe I’m in the House of Commons and I can’t believe that I’m shadow business secretary. I still pinch myself. That’s enough for me at the moment, it really is. That’s the honest truth.”

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.