Extending Rights To The Unmarried

Equal rights for all couples – married and unmarried, hetero and homo.


The first challenge to the ban on same-sex marriages in Britain took place on 19 March 1992 at Westminster Registry Office, London. The queer rights group OutRage! organised five homosexual couples to file applications for civil marriage. While critical of the institution of marriage, OutRage! argued that prohibiting gay people from getting married was a form of homophobic discrimination.

Although the 1949 Marriage Act does not stipulate that marriage must be between male and female persons, a subsequent amendment, the Matrimonial Causes Act 1973, inserted this requirement for the first time in UK law. It was on this basis that the five applications were refused.

Despite this setback in Britain, the movement to extend legal rights to same-sex partners is powering ahead in other countries. Dutch parliamentarians recently voted, in principle, to legalise gay marriage. Hawaii’s Supreme Court is expected to strike down the ban on same-sex weddings. Already, ‘registered partnership’ laws, granting lesbian and gay couples nearly all the rights enjoyed by married heterosexuals, have been passed by Denmark, Greenland, Norway, Sweden and Iceland.

The new-found homosexual passion for the formalised ritual of wedlock (the word itself alludes to the frequently confining, suffocating nature of married life), is somewhat surprising. Marriage was, after all, devised to ensure the sexual control of women by men, the inheritance of property through the male line, and to regulate the conception and rearing of children. Custom-made for heterosexuals, it’s irrelevant to gay people. Instead of conforming to the marriage status quo, the gay community should, perhaps, join together with liberal heterosexuals to create a more liberating alternative.

Most gay lovers (and plenty of straight ones too) don’t want a state-sanctioned marriage contract, but they do want legal rights, such as acknowledgement as next-of-kin. Why should marriage be the only way partners can secure legal recognition?

Unmarried couples often have relationships that are as strong and enduring as those of their wedded counterparts. Yet common law heterosexual lovers have very few legal rights, and same-sex partners have none.

The debate over gay marriage offers an ideal opportunity to rethink the basis on which couples (both gay and straight) are granted legal rights, and to reconsider whether marriage is the most appropriate form of partnership protection.

What’s important is love and commitment, not the formal legal state of marriage. Relationships merit legal recognition and rights, regardless of whether the partners are wed or unwed. To protect those who choose not to get married, we need a new legal framework. My proposed Unmarried Partners Act would grant automatic legal rights to all unwed couples, hetero and homo.

Unpublished 1996

© Copyright Peter Tatchell, 1996. All rights reserved.