Marriage equality

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Laws regarding same-sex sexuality

Homosexuality legal

   Same-sex marriage1
   Other type of partnership1, 2
   Foreign same-sex marriages recognized1
   No recognition of same-sex couples

Homosexuality illegal

   Minimal penalty
   Heavy penalty
   Up to life in prison
   Up to death

Rings indicate areas where local judges have granted marriage or imposed the death penalty in a country where that is not otherwise the law.

1May include recent laws or court decisions which have created legal recognition of same-sex relationships, but which have not yet come into force.

2Or unregistered cohabitation.

Marriage equality refers to the extension to same-sex couples of the ability to get married in the same way as opposite-sex couples. Full same-sex marriage (sometimes referred to as "gay marriage") has now been legally recognised in a number of countries around the world (starting with the Netherlands in 2001) and in some states of the USA. In the UK, demand for same-sex marriage was initially met by the introduction of civil partnerships, which provide almost all of the rights and obligations of marriage. However some differences remain, which led to the campaign to extend marriage as such to same-sex couples.

Historical background

Marriage in English law was historically defined as "the voluntary union for life of one man and one woman" (Hyde v Hyde and Woodmansee, 1866).

In the early days of the gay rights movement, to call for gay marriage seemed a "pretty strange idea. ... For instance it has been suggested in all seriousness that homosexual marriages should have legal status, and that homosexual couples should be allowed to adopt children."[1]

There are some possible earlier precedents for same-sex marriage, for instance the medieval rite of adelphopoiesis has sometimes been viewed as equivalent to gay marriage. It can also be argued that Roberta Cowell was briefly in a same-sex marriage between having her birth certificate changed to show her as male and being divorced from her wife.

Partnership registrations

In response for the growing call for some form of recognition of same-sex relationships, the then Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, introduced the London Partnership Register in 2001. This enabled same-sex couples to have a degree of recognition by an official body of their relationship, but had no legal force. It was open to opposite-sex as well as same-sex couples. Similar registers were set up in other places in the UK. The success of the London Partnership Register, and the lack of any public outcry against it, is thought to have paved the way for the introduction of civil partnerships.

Civil partnerships

Civil partnerships were introduced by the Labour Government under the Civil Partnership Act 2004. The first civil partnerships were formed in December 2005. Civil partnerships were essentially designed to parallel civil (as opposed to religious) marriage, hence the prohibition on holding a civil partnership ceremony on religious premises (this ban has since been removed) or on including any religious element in the ceremony. Currently the number of new civil partnerships is running at about 5,800 per annum.

One difference from civil marriage is that sexual intercourse is not mentioned in the law. A marriage can be annulled if it's not consummated (ie if the couple don't have sex together) and one of the grounds for divorce is adultery (ie if one of the couple has sex with someone else): there's no equivalent for either of these in the case of civil partnerships. As a result the Church of England, which officially disapproves of clergy having homosexual relationships, has not banned its priests from entering into civil partnerships, on the grounds that they can do so and still remain sexually celibate.

A number of other countries, starting with Denmark in 1989, have introduced the equivalent of civil partnership, often called civil union, domestic partnership, or registered partnership. Several of these countries have since introduced same-sex marriage: in some cases the registered parterships have simply been converted into marriages, in other cases such as the Netherlands civil unions and same-sex marriage continue to exist side by side.

Trans issues

The Civil Partnership Act 2004 and the Gender Recognition Act 2004 were brought in together. Given that same-sex couples currently cannot be married and opposite-sex couples cannot have a civil partnership, there are special procedures involved when people change their gender. For intance if a married person changes gender and the couple wish to stay together they have to obtain an Interim Gender Recognition Certificate and then have their marriage dissolved. After this the transitioning partner can get a full Gender Recognition Certifcate, and they can then if they wish form a civil partnership.

Couples who have been in this situation have found the process distressing. It can also be expensive, and can affect pension and other rights.

The demand for marriage equality

The Civil Partnership Act was welcomed as a major step forward for gay people, but there has been a growing view that it does not represent full equality.

Marriage equality was not explicitly mentioned in any of the parties' manifestos for the 2010 general election; however a separate document, A Contract for Equalities, issued by the Conservative Party, included in its "Action on LGBT Issues" section the statement "We will also consider the case for changing the law to allow civil partnerships to be called and classified as marriage."[2]

The Government's consultation in autumn 2010 on extending civil partnerships to religious premises found a desire to make civil marriage open to same-sex couples.

The Equal Love Campaign was launched on 26 October 2010, and aims to pose a legal challenge to the UK's ban on same-sex marriage and opposite-sex civil partnership.[3] It is taking a case to the European Court of Human Rights asking for four same-sex couples (including Rev Sharon Ferguson and her partner Franka Strietzel) to be allowed to be married, and four opposite-sex couples (including Katherine Doyle and Tom Freeman) to have a civil partnership.

Other views of marriage

Some LGBT people (and indeed some non-LGBT people) do not support the idea of marriage at all, considering that it embodies outdated patriarchal views of relationships based on property rights. But some argue that as long as marriage exists, it should be available to gay and straight alike. This aspect was debated at the 2011 CHE Conference, with contributions from Peter Tatchell, Andrew Lumsden, Ian Buist and Peter Scott-Presland.[4]


The Scottish Government conducted a consultation exercise starting 2 September 2011.[5] which attracted 77,508 responses. On 25 July 2012 the Scottish Government announced that it will introduce legislation to bring in same-sex marriage.[6] A bill was introduced in the Scottish Parliament on 27 June 2013, and finally passed on 4 February 2014. See Marriage Equality (Scotland) for fuller details.

England and Wales

Government consultation

On 15 March 2012 the Home Office launched a consultation about the introduction of equal marriage in England and Wales.[7] Equalities Minister Lynne Featherstone said: “I believe that if a couple love each other and want to commit to a life together, they should have the option of a civil marriage, whatever their gender. Today is a hugely important step as we consider how to lift the ban on civil marriage for same-sex couples. This is about the underlying principles of family, society, and personal freedoms. Marriage is a celebration of love and should be open to everyone."[8]

The consultation closed on the 14th of June 2012. There were 16 questions, as follows:

  1. Do you agree or disagree with enabling all couples, regardless of their gender, to have a civil marriage ceremony?
  2. Please explain the reasons for your answer.
  3. If you identify as being lesbian, gay, bisexual or transsexual would you wish to have a civil marriage ceremony?
  4. If you represent a group of individuals who identify as being lesbian, gay, bisexual or transsexual would those you represent wish to have a civil marriage ceremony?
  5. The Government does not propose to open up religious marriage to same-sex couples. Do you agree or disagree?
  6. Do you agree or disagree with keeping the option of civil partnerships once civil marriage is available to same-sex couples?
  7. If you identify as being lesbian, gay, or bisexual and were considering making a legal commitment to your partner would you prefer to have a civil parternship or a civil marriage?
  8. The Government is not considering opening up civil partnerships to opposite-sex couples. Do you agree or disagree with this proposal?
  9. If you are in a civil partnership would you wish to take advantage of this policy and convert your civil partnership into a marriage?
  10. Do you agree or disagree that there should be a time limit on the ability to convert a civil partnership into a marriage?
  11. Do you agree or disagree that there should be the choice to have a civil ceremony on conversion of a civil partnership into a marriage?
  12. If you are a married transsexual person would you want to take advantage of this policy and remain in your marriage while obtaining a full Gender Recognition Certificate?
  13. If you are the spouse of a transsexual person, would you want to take advantage of this policy and remain in your marriage whilst your spouse obtained a full Gender Recognition Certificate?
  14. Do you have any comments on the assumptions or issues outlined in this chapter on consequential impacts?
  15. Are you aware of any costs or benefits that exist to either the public or private sector, or individuals, that we have not accounted for?
  16. Do you have any other comments on the proposals within this consultation?

CHE and CAGS jointly issued a guidance paper suggesting points that might be made when responding to the consultation.[9]

In August 2012 the House of Commons Library published a 25-page briefing paper entitled "Same-sex marriage and civil partnerships". This included a summary of responses to the consultation by churches and LGBT campaigning organisations.[10]

The Government have subsequently published more details about the responses.[11][12]

Government statement, December 2012

In December 2012 the Government published its response to the consultation.[13]

The Culture Secretary, Maria Miller, confirmed in December 2012 that it is now the Government's intention to allow religious weddings to be held by those churches who wish to do so.[14] However the Chruch of England and Church in Wales will be specifically prohibited from conducting same-sex marriages.

Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill

Part of the promotional material the government have produced to promote the bill. Image: from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport
The Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill was published on 25 January 2013.[15] Paragraph 1.1 (1) simply says "Marriage of same sex couples is lawful." The remainder of the 52 pages goes into various complications.

Under the Bill as drafted, the Church of England and (with minor differences) the Church in Wales will be prohibited from conducting same-sex weddings. Other religious bodies would be able to opt in (but individual ministers would be allowed to opt out).

The Bill received its second reading in the House of Commons on 5 February 2013 by 400 to 175, a majority of 225.[16] The Bill was then sent to a Public Bill Committee, which met between 26 February and 12 March, and accepted written and oral evidence and scrutinised the Bill line by line. Many amendments were proposed but none of them was accepted.[17] On 9 June the House of Commons formally agreed to continue with the Bill in the new session of Parliament.[18] The remaining two-day Commons debate took place on Monday 20 May and Tuesday 21 May. A number of amendments were agreed during report stage, notably calling for a review of the future of civil partnerships.[19] In third reading, the Bill was passed by 366 votes to 161.[20]

In June 2013 the Bill was discussed in the House of Lords. It achieved a second reading after a blocking amendment by Lord Dear was defeated by 390 votes to 148.[21] The Archbishop of Canterbury and 8 other bishops voted for the amendment, but given the clear majority in both houses in favour of the bill, the Church of England is said to have abandoned outright opposition and the bishops intend to “join with other Members in the task of considering how this legislation can be put into better shape.”[22]

On 15 July 2013 the House of Lords gave the Bill an unopposed third reading.[23] On 16 July the Commons agreed to the amendments that had been passed in the Lords, and on 18 July the Bill received the royal assent and became law, as the Marriage (Same-Sex Couples) Act 2013.[24]

Act comes into force

On 10 December 2013 the Government announced that the first same-sex marriages could take place on 29 March 2014, earlier than had been expected. However there would be a longer delay, possibly to the end of 2014, for couples wanting to convert an existing civil partnership to a marriage.[25]

The Act came into force on 13 March 2014, from which date same-sex couples married overseas can have their marriage recognised in the UK,[26] and couples can register for marriages to take place from the 29th onwards.

The first same-sex marriages took place just after midnight on the 29th of March 2013, following relaxation of the rules about marriages being celebrated at specific times of day only.

Consultation on future of civil partnerships

On 24 January 2014 the Government launched a consultation on the future of civil partnerships. Responses can be submitted online or by post. The consultation closes on the 17th of April.[27]

Northern Ireland

A group called Equal Marriage NI was formed in July 2011 to push for marriage equality. The group included representatives from bodies including The Rainbow Project NI, NUS-USI, GLYNI and the Queen’s University Belfast LGBT Society.[28]

In October 2012, a motion calling for equal marriage was rejected by the Northern Ireland Assembly.[29]

In February 2013, Amnesty International and the Rainbow Project predicted that the LGBT community will use the Human Rights Act and European human rights legislation to force Northern Ireland to introduce same-sex marriage.[30]

In April 2013, the Northern Ireland Assembly voted 53 to 42 to reject a bill introducing equal marriage.[31]

Further votes were held in subsequent years, culminating in the vote on 2 November 2015, which for the first time showed a narrow majority in favour of same-sex marriage.

In 2018, with the Northern Ireland Assembly suspended, the UK Parliament took the initiative. On 1 November 2018, royal assent was granted to the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation and Exercise of Functions) Act 2018, containing sections describing Northern Ireland's same-sex marriage and abortion bans as human rights violations.The Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Act 2019 was passed on 21 October 2019, legalising abortion and requiring the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland to issue regulations extending same-sex marriage to Northern Ireland. The ensuing regulations came into effect on 13 January 2020, and the first same-sex couples were married under the new law in February.

Note: in the Irish Republic, civil partnerships were introduced in 2010 and the Government announced plans for a constitutional amendment to allow same-sex marriage.[32] The differences between civil partnerships (Irish version) and marriage are highlighted in a paper produced by the Irish organisation Marriage Equality.[33] In May 2015 the constitutional amendment to introduce same-sex marriage was passed by a large majority.

Organisations supporting and opposing equal marriage



  • The Coalition for Marriage.[42] On 12 June 2012 it handed a 500,000-strong petition aganst equal marriage to the Prime Minister.[43]
  • Keep Marriage Special.[44]
  • Scotland for Marriage.[45]
  • The Society for the Protection of Unborn Children, an anti-abortion pressure group, has published a paper opposing equal marriage.[46]

External links Timeline Of Gay and Lesbian Marriage, Partnership or Unions Worldwide Equal Marriage Timeline from the Department of Culture, Media and Sport


  1. D J West, Homosexuality, Duckworth 1955, second revised edition Pelican Books 1968, page 110.
  2. Conservative Equalities Manifesto, Page 15.
  3. Launch of the Equal Love Campaign
  4. "Tie the knot or break the chains": Debate on gay marriage at the 2011 CHE Conference
  9. CHE/CAGS guidance paper
  15. Text of Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill
  23. Oliver Wright, "Gay marriage set to become law as peers approve Same Sex Couples Bill", The Independent, 15 July 2013
  24. "Same-sex marriage becomes law in England and Wales" BBC News 17 July 2013
  25. Joseph Patrick McCormick, "Couples in civil partnerships ‘disappointed’ to have to wait longer to convert to marriage". Pink News 11 December 2013
  29. BBC News item
  30. Henry McDonald, "Northern Ireland's ban on gay marriage to be challenged by Amnesty in court", The Guardian, 29 March 2013
  31. Joseph Patrick McCormick, "Northern Ireland: Protests take place at Assembly as equal marriage measures fail again" Pink News 29 April 2013.
  34. Coalition for Equal Marriage.
  35. Voting intentions of MPs
  36. Out4Marriage
  37. Equal marriage Rights
  38. Equal Marriage e-petition
  41. Equal Marriage Campaign (Scotland).
  42. Coalition for Marriage