There has been a lot of talk about the dangers of gay marriage over the past few weeks. Allowing gay people to get married would, it is alleged, damage society and harm families. Not only that, but gay people themselves don’t want to get married, as shown by the low take up rates of gay marriage where it is available.
In the UK, we don’t have gay marriage, at least not at the moment. We do have a very similar institution: civil partnerships. These have been around since late 2005, and the statistics are interesting. In England and Wales between 2006 and 2010, there were 40,921 civil partnerships. Over the same period there were 1,184,158 marriages.
In other words, 3.34% of all legal unions in England and Wales were civil partnerships, and the rest (96.66%) were marriages. The figures, broken down by year, are shown in the following table and graph.
||% Civil Partnerships
When you look at the graph, you can see that civil partnerships are a small proportion of legal unions. So small, in fact, that it seems pretty incredible to think that they are destroying, or even significantly harming ‘traditional’ marriage. If the 3.34% of civil partnerships are destroying the 96.66% of marriages, then marriage must have been pretty weak to begin with. If you argue that gay marriage somehow debases, changes or harms straight marriage, then you are actually arguing that straight marriage is a very weak institution.
When you look at the figures, you can see how important civil partnerships are. In England and Wales there are nearly 82 thousand people who have had their relationships recognised by the state. That’s 82 thousand people who don’t have to worry about things like next-of-kin visiting rights in hospital. 82 thousand people whose lives have been improved. Has anyone actually been harmed by civil partnerships?
There is a third significant observation about these figures, which we can only see when we look at additional data. According to Sexual Behaviour in Britain, 90.2% of men and 92.4% of women report exclusively heterosexual experience and attraction. If the scope is widened to include people who have experienced mostly heterosexual attraction or experience, the figures are 96.0% and 97% respectively1. You would expect that the gender you are mostly or exclusively attracted to would be the gender you end up marrying. Roughly 96% to 97% of people are mostly or exclusively heterosexual and roughly 97% of legal unions are (heterosexual) marriages. Gay people (or people in gay relationships) are availing themselves of civil partnerships at the same rate that straight people (or people in straight relationships) are availing themselves of marriage. It would seem that gay people want to get married just as much as straight people.
These figures show that marriage equality can’t hurt ‘traditional’ marriage, and gay people are just as keen to have their relationships recognised by the state as straight people are. People already see civil partnerships as the same as marriage. The time has come for legislation to catch up. The time has come for equal marriage.
1 Wellings et al, Sexual Behaviour in Britain, Penguin Books, 1994, p183