2002-2012: A decade when Parliament put right two significant wrongs

6 June 2022

Pride 2022 marks the fiftieth anniversary of the first official UK Gay Pride Rally held in London.  We are marking each decade from 1972 to 2022 with a blog every week throughout June.

The decade 2002-2012 was the period when our legal system began to catch up with, and to some extent then go on to lead, significant changes in attitude amongst the population towards same sex relationships.  There were two landmark moments: the repeal in 2003 of the infamous section 28 of the Local Government Act 1988, and the introduction of same sex civil partnerships through the Civil Partnership Act 2004.

Section 28 had introduced an amendment into the Local Government Act 1986 which provided that a local authority should not intentionally promote homosexuality or publish material with the intention of promoting homosexuality; or promote the teaching in any maintained school of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship.  The new law was partly inspired by a 1983 story book called “Jenny Lives with Eric and Martin” which gave children information about different types of family relationships.  Margaret Thatcher said at the time that “Children who need to be taught to respect traditional moral values are being taught that they have an inalienable right to be gay”. 

The new law sparked mass protests by LGBT+ campaigners and it now seems incredible that Parliament should have allowed such a discriminatory and plainly wrong provision to pass into law.  As I write these words I feel anger and outrage that anyone could describe a same sex couple with a child as a “pretend” family relationship. It seems that the legislation was possible because at the time attitudes to same sex relationships were very different to today. In 2021, John Haskey, an Associate Fellow of the University of Oxford, published research which charts the gradual changes in attitude in society towards such relationships. In 1983 just over 10% of respondents to the British Social Attitudes Survey thought that same sex relationships were “not wrong at all”.  In 2003, the year that section 28 was repealed, the figure was just above 30%, a figure that was still disappointingly low but indicating enough of a change for the legislation repealing section 28 to get through.

Doubtless that figure would have been higher if children had in fact been taught about all sorts of family structures at school. The damage caused by section 28 is likely to have continued for many years.  In the experience of many schoolchildren growing up in the early years of this century there was little or no teaching about LGBT relationships: consciously or subconsciously teachers avoided the topic.  But the rate of acceptance of same sex relationships did nonetheless increase over the next few years. Haskey shows that by 2017 the number of people thinking that same sex relationships were not wrong at all grew to 70%. 

In the meantime, the legislature continued to get ahead of where most of the population were in terms of their attitudes to same sex relationships. Just two years after the repeal of section 28, between 19 and 21 December 2005, legislation in the UK permitting same sex partnerships came into being.  The legislation gave civil partnerships almost the same equivalence as marriage.  It was a major landmark in achieving equality for gay people and finally laid the ghost of section 28 to rest, giving the full force of law to recognise and promote relationships between same sex couples. It answered a huge unmet need.  That December, 1857 same sex couples entered into a civil partnership, and the following year 14,943 couples followed suit.  For the next few years, 5 or 6 thousand couples each year entered into civil partnerships and this number continued until marriage between same sex couples was allowed from 2015.  Since then the number has always been less than a thousand, despite the fact that from December 2019 civil partnerships for opposite sex couples became possible.

I am unaware of any detailed analysis of the various reasons why same sex couples still enter into civil partnerships rather than marriage, but one reason is very well known.  Clergy in the Church of England in a same sex relationship are prohibited from marrying each other.  They may enter into civil partnerships, but only on the basis that they are prepared to give assurances that such unions are celibate, and as recently as 23 January 2020 the House of Bishops of the Church of England published a statement to the effect that Church of England clergy may not bless civil partnerships of any kind.

The bishops’ approach to the issue of same sex partnerships and marriage has produced huge controversy within the CofE.  The rationale of the bishops is that “marriage between a man and a woman is the proper context for sexual intercourse”, yet, amongst the laity, 82% of Anglicans and Roman Catholics say that there is nothing wrong at all with sex outside marriage.

This is an area that provokes strong feelings and is one of the most divisive issues within the church today.  To my mind, as a practising Christian and member of the Church of England, the church has lost its way.  To refuse to allow a loving couple, devoting their lives to the service of the church, to be married in the church that they serve is inhumane.  There are many clergy in this situation and they bear it with patience and fortitude, but they are not valued for the people that they are and I am sure that, in this atmosphere, they cannot give of their best.  An institution which should be providing them with support, affirmation and honour for their calling, instead averts its gaze.  Things have to change.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Stephen Parkinson is Kingsley Napley's Senior Partner. Stephen is a highly experienced and versatile litigator with extensive experience in advising companies, organisations, and individuals caught up in criminal and regulatory investigations or public inquiries. His previous client list has included numerous individuals at the top of their fields, whether in business or politics.

 

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