From ‘same-sex marriage’ to ‘equal marriage’

by Revd Professor Diarmaid MacCulloch FBA

17 Jul 2018

Tuesday 17 July 2018 marked the fifth anniversary of the passage into UK law of the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act. Fellows of the British Academy tend towards ripeness in years; the result is that many of us, myself included, have memories of a very different Great Britain from that which witnessed this legislation win startlingly strong affirmation in both Houses of Parliament in 2013. 

Limited decriminalisation in 1967

I was a 16-year-old schoolboy when in 1967, Parliament enacted a carefully-limited decriminalisation of male sexual acts, between consenting adults, in private. This grudging measure, passed primarily to reduce the volume of blackmail cases that had begun to embarrass the British governing class, was not complemented by any legislation affecting the sex lives of the female half of the population: the various punitive enactments in British law initiated with England’s Statute against Buggery in 1533 concerned themselves entirely with men. That hardly mattered if you were gay; gay women were marginalised and stigmatised alongside the ‘poofs/fairies’ etc. Such were among the more polite terms applied to a male sexual minority that aroused acute fears about the nature of masculinity, routinely expressed in hostile humour in public discourse.

Surviving in the Sixties

It was quite tiring being a consciously gay person in 1967, requiring a constant level of self-awareness, self-examination and adoption of a range of defensive behaviours, from self-parody to excessive heterosexual or homophobic posturing – just in order to survive. Many did not survive; rates of attempted or successful suicides in the gay population of mid-20th-century Britain are hard to calculate, given the invisibility of gay people at the time, but all efforts to estimate them indicate significantly higher percentages than in the population as a whole[1].

The only public moral and ethical guidance on same-sex sexual behaviour was a total prohibition; that encouraged many gay people to be irresponsible and immature in their sexual relations, for there were no guidelines to follow or even rules to break, once one had broken the only rule available. More positively, the never-ending demands of self-awareness propelled a higher number of gay people into caring professions than their proportionate presence in the whole population would otherwise have predicted; one of the better reasons, for instance, why so many clergy across Christian denominations are gay. And yet still some couples obstinately affirmed their commitment to each other, long before it was legally permissible even to express same-sex affection. That took exceptional independence of mind and creative imagination, but I know personally some inspiring examples. A year or two back, I was sitting in the garden of one such couple under the shade of a mighty tree, and commenting on its splendour. ‘Yes’, they said, ‘We planted that when we moved here half a century ago’.

Shifting social attitudes

Why rake up this ancient history? Because it illuminates and renders more dramatic the extraordinarily rapid shift in social attitudes, perhaps without precedent, between 1967 and the passage of the Marriage Act in 2013. What was almost inconceivable half a century ago, state-sanctioned same-sex marriage equal with heterosexual marriage, has become routine in this country now, and not merely in this country, but through most of Europe, Australasia and the Americas, with outliers elsewhere too. What was once termed ‘a crime against nature’ has become part of a wider norm, in which same-gender weddings enjoy the highs and lows of more long-established marriage ceremonies, and an increasingly large proportion of the general population knows at least one gay couple in a state-licensed partnership or marriage. 

Even some Christian Churches have officially accepted the change, starting with Lutheran Churches in northern Europe and Free Churches in Britain, but spreading steadily through parts of the Anglican Communion, with the Church in Wales and the Episcopal Church of Scotland offering liturgical expression for same-sex partnerships. Can any major reconfiguration of social relationships have previously occurred in such a short space of time? It is not surprising that there has been backlash, panic and vitriol in response: the rapid change has fuelled ultra-conservative electoral growth across the world, from the United States of America to the Russian Republic. Often such fury and hatred of novelty is incongruously combined with hatred of Islam, despite the fact that Islamic societies commonly display the sort of public attitudes to homosexuality that I remember from my boyhood. One might think that Ulster’s Democratic Unionist Party and Presidents Trump and Putin would seek out conservative imams to make common cause on the subject.

“The rapid change has fuelled ultra-conservative electoral growth across the world, from the United States of America to the Russian Republic.”

How can academic research help in understanding this great change?

One of the most interesting questions, therefore, for social scientists and historians to explore is how this astonishing turnaround has taken such widespread hold in the world. One obvious factor for historians of the Church like myself is the changing relationship of once hegemonically Christian societies to traditional Christian teaching, and the fascinating way in which even practising and believing Christians are now part of the change. Questions of Church and biblical authority come into this, and they suggest that the other ‘Religions of the Book’, Islam and Judaism, may have similar experiences in store.

There are observations, too, to be made about relationships between generations, and the conversations that take place between them. I was involved a little on the sidelines in the discussions that led up to the passage of the British legislation in 2013, particularly in regard to the House of Lords. It was expected that the frequently elderly membership of this body would provide a major obstacle to the proposals. Instead some of the most passionate speeches in the bill’s favour came from unmistakably aged peers. They had observed and talked to their grandchildren – the results were significant. Finally, linguistic scholars will be able to map for us the shifts in language that have resulted from this momentous change: when ‘same-sex marriage’ becomes ‘equal marriage’, and finally, just marriage.

Diarmaid MacCulloch FBA is Professor of the History of the Church at the University of Oxford, and current BA Vice-President with responsibility for Communications and Engagement.

Photo by Dan Kitwood / Getty Images. 

[1] P. Tremblay, “The homosexuality factor in the youth suicide problem”: paper presented to Sixth Annual Conference of the Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention, Banff, October, 1995. Internet Availability:

A.P. Haas et al., “Suicide and Suicide Risk in Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Populations: Review and Recommendations”, Journal of Homosexuality 58 (2011), 10-51.

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