In October 2014, Rebecca Steinfeld and Charles Keidan entered Chelsea Town Hall in London, to form a civil partnership. But, as a mixed-sex couple, they were refused. Although the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013 allowed same-sex couples to marry, mixed-sex couples were not eligible for civil partnerships, which remained restricted to same-sex unions.
The couple sought a judicial review, claiming that the British law was incompatible with the European Convention on Human Rights. In June 2018, judges at the UK’s Supreme Court ruled in the couple’s favour. A few months later, the government moved to rectify matters.
Steinfeld and Keidan became civil partners on New Year’s Eve, 2019—the first date on which they could do so, having given notice at the start of December. Five years of waiting, campaigning and depleting their mental health had given them access to a legal arrangement almost identical to marriage, but with a different name.
But why did they bother?
Civil partnerships for same-sex couples were introduced in Britain in 2004. Tony Blair’s New Labour government remained nervous about alienating conservatives, despite having won two general elections. “The pragmatic view at the time was that we could achieve the basis of equal rights without it being called marriage,” Labour MP Stephen Twigg told Vice years later. “The view was it would be less controversial.”
This linguistic game struck some LGBT campaigners as akin to segregation. The resulting pressure led a Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition to open marriage up to same-sex couples a decade later. Some same-sex couples converted their civil partnerships to marriages, finally achieving that symbolic equality.
This evolution of civil partnerships in Britain reflects an obvious fact: they are marriages under another name. And, while this rebranding rankled with some LGBT campaigners, for others it meant enjoying the legal protections of marriage without feeling weighed down by the institution’s past—but only if both partners were the same sex.
Equal Civil Partnerships, the campaign group behind Steinfeld and Keidan, says on its website that the “history, expectations, and cultural baggage” of the two arrangements are “very different”:
Many couples can make a marriage work. But for some people—especially women—marriage is seen as carrying far too much patriarchal baggage: the idea that the man would own his wife, given away to him by the father of the bride.
Of course these trappings could be taken away, but doing so would not erase the history of marriage and the baggage it carries. That history makes many couples feel uncomfortable at the idea of entering a marriage, but we believe that choice should not mean they are denied legal and financial protection.
Ultimately, for some, the concept of marriage is burdened with an original sin, which cannot be atoned for.
Modern western marriage does little to confirm such a view. Legal reforms and changes in social mores have abolished not just the medieval model of marriage, in which women were treated as property, but even the 1950s view that wives should clean the house, raise the kids and ensure dinner was on the table when their husbands got home.
A 2011 Guardian editorial, based on a White House report, declared that “traditional marriage is dead” in the US—and not just because of pressure to legalise same-sex marriage. “Heterosexual Janes and Johns are also reshaping holy matrimony: they’re marrying later, they’re marrying less, and for reasons other than having children,” writes Jill Filipovic:
Couples who share both paid work and housework have more sex. Children of women with college degrees do better in school. Women who are college-educated tend to marry later, and also have lower divorce rates; they are more likely to stay married than women who aren’t highly educated and financially independent.
Marriage in Britain has likewise been transformed. Where once an act of parliament was needed to enact a divorce, the government is currently legislating to allow a spouse to divorce just by stating that the marriage has irretrievably broken down, removing the existing requirements to evidence unreasonable behaviour or undergo a period of separation. The diminishing significance of marriage was underscored by the 2006 British Social Attitudes Survey, which found that two-thirds of respondents saw “little difference socially” between married and cohabiting couples.
It is not merely, as the Equal Civil Partnerships campaign has it, that the “trappings” have been taken away: the whole institution has been remoulded for a society in which premarital sex is the norm, men and women both work and divorce is fairly common. The campaigners’ complaints are directed at an institution that has been reformed out of existence.
By some measures, the campaign for mixed-sex partnerships has therefore been a waste of time, money and energy. But there is a more charitable interpretation. For some, there is a symbolic importance to getting married without calling it marriage.
Western progressives are not entirely opposed to symbols, but, in the post-war era, much of what our forebears held dear has been discarded or downgraded. Christian symbols are growing increasingly irrelevant to many of us, and symbols that evoke national affection are contentious.
When progressives do openly defend symbols, they are more commonly those of minority groups. Much discussion of de-colonising the curriculum is a search for symbolic figures and texts meant to appeal to women, non-whites and LGBT people. What’s less noticed is that progressives have their own symbols which are important to them—even sacred.
One place that has acknowledged this is the Sacred Podcast, run by the religious think tank Theos. Host Elizabeth Oldfield invites both the religious and irreligious to discuss sacred values. Though some non-believing guests dispute the show’s premise, many accept that irreligious folk—both progressives and conservatives—can have sacred values, even if those values are not backed by a godlike figure.
In our era of outrage culture, defending sacred values often means spouting vitriol at those breaking political taboos—an action that sometimes results in the offender losing her job, which may be considered an act of symbolic justice. A preoccupation with sacred values also motivates both the calls to remove a Cecil Rhodes statue in Cape Town, Nelson’s Column in London and Confederate statues in the Deep South—and those who oppose such measures.
Steinfeld and Keidan’s actions were not a cost-effective means of obtaining legal recognition and financial protection for their relationship. But they were an effective way to symbolise their rejection of marriage and the old world it came from.
Such symbolic contests are not just the domain of the superstitious or religious. They are also central to how progressives express and pursue their own sacred values.