Two things happened when, in quick succession at the start of this week, the House of Lords passed the final reading of the Equal Marriage Act and the Queen subsequently put her signature to the bill. The first was that a lot of people who happen to be gay were happy. The second is that a few people who can’t, to paraphrase the charity Stonewall, ‘get over it’, were very upset. One thing that was not observed was the institution of marriage, whatever that euphemism means, collapsing into a pile of rubble and broken unions. No heterosexual marriages have, to the best of anyone’s knowledge, yet collapsed due to this week’s general increase in equality.
In fact one may well think that the ‘institution’ has been strengthened. There will now be more, not less, people getting married in Britain. Whether this is a good thing depends on your views of marriage but it would be hard to argue that more people being able to partner up will weaken the status of marriage within society.
What the long road from the first Parliamentary vote through to the monarch’s signature did highlight was how many people still have a problem with the idea of equality. While out and out homophobia was mostly absent from the debate there was a more insidious vein of innuendo running through the dust cloud of comment the bill left in its tracks. One can discount some of the Tebbit-esque looniness that was spouted in the Lord’s debate, with the Honourable Lord conveniently forgetting that equal marriage would not allow him to marry his son for tax reasons as incest hasn’t suddenly become legal. However in both chambers as well as in the press there was insulting talk of the law not having to accommodate certain people’s ‘choices’, Section 28 style arguments that teachers should be exempt from teaching the law of the land and the infamous ‘not Adam and Steve’ quote. Discussion of equal marriage seemed to turn normally rational, conservative commentators into bloodhounds from the kennels of the Daily Mail. While there was serious outrage against such behaviour from those actively campaigning for equal marriage there was no real public outcry. The whole affair often had the air of a mildly interesting distraction from other public business.
Equally no one is talking about how, while the passing of the bill is a great victory for equality, it is not the step forward it has be hailed as. No new law will break the lazy attitude towards homophobia that allows the above choice comments to go relatively unchallenged, especially if equality is not given to the entire LGBT community or even straight couples, who are still being denied the opportunity to have a civil partnership. True equality will be the result not just of new laws but politicians and commentators having the gumption to stand up to homophobia and stop diluting their rhetoric in fear of losing votes or readers. The institution of marriage is still standing but there is a long way before it, or society in general, is truly inclusive and equal.