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
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Labour must reclaim English patriotism if we are to beat Ukip and the Tories

We can't talk about the future of our country unless we can discuss the past. 

I was a parliamentary candidate for Thurrock, but the place which I currently call home is Hackney, London. This distinction is worth explaining. The questions of Labour and Englishness – what exactly is the English problem that we’re trying to solve, why do we need a progressive patriotism, does it already exist, if not why not and if we had one what would it look like? – are, above all, questions of identity and place. We need to build a patriotism that includes and resonates with residents of both Hackney and Thurrock. Currently they are very far apart. 

I’m the little girl who sat on her dad’s shoulders to wave a flag at Princess Anne’s first wedding. And I was also, like Sadiq Khan, waving a flag at the Silver Jubilee in 1977. I’m an ex-Catholic, I’m a Londoner, I’m English and I’m a woman, and all of those identities are important although not necessarily equally so and not necessarily all of the time.

But I’m also a member of the Labour party, not only as a candidate, but now as an activist in Hackney. And that is where I see the difference very strongly between Hackney and what I experienced in Thurrock. 

Thurrock was Ukip ground zero last year - 12,000 people voted for Ukip in a general election for the first time, on top of the 3,500 that had voted for them before in 2010. Most of those 12,000 people had either not voted before, or had voted Labour. 

This isn’t just about being in two different places. Sometimes it feels like more than being in two different countries, or even like being on two different planets. The reality is that large swathes of Labour’s members and supporters don’t identify as patriotic, fundamentally because patriotism has been seized and colonised by the right. We need to understand that, by allowing them to seize it, we are losing an opportunity to be able to reclaim our past. 

We do not have any legitimacy to talk about the future of our country unless we can talk about our past in a better way. We have tried but our efforts have been half-hearted. Take Ed Miliband's call for One Nation Labour, which ended up amounting to a washed-out Union Jack as a visual for our brand. It could have been so much better – an opportunity for an intellectual rebranding and a seizure of Conservative territory for our own ends. Ultimately One Nation Labour was a slogan and not a project. 

There is a section of the left which has a distinct discomfort with the idea of pride in country. It has swallowed the right-wing myth that England’s successes have all been Conservative ones. This is a lie, but one that has spread very effectively. The left’s willingness to swallow it means that we are still living in a Thatcherite paradigm. It is no wonder progressives revolt at the idea of patriotism, when the right’s ideas of duty and authority quash our ideas of ambitions for equality, opportunity for all and challenging injustice. But we risk denying our successes by allowing the right to define Englishness. It’s England that helped establish the principle of the right to vote, the rule of law, equal suffrage, and the fight against racism. 

If Englishness is going to mean anything in modern England, it needs to be as important for those who feel that perhaps they aren’t English as it is for those who feel that they definitely are. And a place must be reserved for those who, though technically English, don’t see their own story within the Conservative myth of Englishness. 

Although this reclaiming is electorally essential, it is not an electoral gimmick. It is fundamental to who we are. Even if we didn’t need it to win, I would be arguing for it.

We need to make sure that progressive patriotism reclaims the visual language that the Conservatives use to dress up their regressive patriotism. Women need to be as much in the pantheon of the radicals as part of the visual identity of Englishness. Women tend to either be there by birth or by marriage, or we are abstract manifestations of ideals like "justice" or "truth" – as seen on city halls and civic buildings across the country. But English women need to be real, rather than just ideal. Englishness does need to be focused on place and connection, and it should include Mary Wollstonecraft and Sylvia Pankhurst as well as Wat Tyler and Thomas Paine. 

We can’t pretend that we’re always right. The most patriotic thing you can do is to admit sometimes that you’re wrong, so that your country can be better. I love my country, for all its faults. But I do not live with them. I try to make my country better. That is progressive patriotism. And I know all of us who want to be part of this can be part of it. 

This article is based on Polly’s contribution to Who Speaks to England? Labour’s English challenge, a new book published today by the Fabian Society and the Centre for English Identity and Politics at the University of Winchester.