Whose Equality?

Moving the agenda of equal rights forward

The last eighteen months have seen some significant victories. Laurence Brewer says (BCN Issue 41) that “most of the campaigns and precedents have been gained in terms of partnership rights and rest upon long term committed monogamous relationships”.

In fact this is the opposite of the case – as his list of issues shows. The big hot potatoes have been the age of consent, Section 28 and gays in the military. There have also been advances for transgendered people. None of these have anything to do with committed relationships.

In fact, an individual gay person can already adopt – so the current situation appears to discriminate against couples, who cannot both adopt in law.

It is true that some cases have been about extending partnership rights to same sex couples. But, the most interesting of these – in housing – has been widely misreported. Judges, by a 2 to 1 decision, ruled that a gay man’s long-term partner was entitled to his tenancy when he died. But the ruling makes it absolutely clear that they did not rule that the two men were, in effect married. They did not use the part of the legislation referring to unmarried straight couples. What the judges did was to rule that a relationship based on mutual love and support brought the two men into a family relationship.

The judges therefore set an intriguing precedent, that the courts should judge the degree of mutual need and support, in deciding housing rights. Reading the judgement it was clear to me that three lesbians, two straight brothers, or four swingers living together could in theory apply to the courts for the tenancy if the individual holding the tenancy died. In other words, the judgement appears more sweeping than legislation creating partnership rights would be.

This is the way we need to go. The whole idea of marriage rights was defensible only in so far as it was supposedly, in a patriarchal way, about protecting people. Widows got a pension and rights to live in the family house because they had not been in paid work and were supposedly not able to support themselves. The law tries to protect children for a similar reason.

The debate needs to move on from, “the company gives straight couples £50 in Boots tokens when they marry, I demand that too.” Corporate and state welfare rights need either to be shifted on a fair basis of need – or given to everybody. Time off for family commitments is good, but single people should have the same rights to flexibility to deal with their own domestic crises. You should be able to nominate anyone to get your death in service benefit. Etc.

As far as I can see, it is only the “free travel for lesbian partners” case which rests purely on equating gay partners with straight ones.

Steve C