Separate, but equal?

By Adam Cuerden

Elliott Erwitt's famous photo of separate-but-supposedly-equal drinking fountains.

Six of my MSPs have already both signed their support, and pledged to promote the ability of all Scots to marry who they love. Marco Biagi, Kezia Dugdale, Neil Findlay, Alison Johnstone, Sarah Boyack, and Margo MacDonald are all awesome people who are threatening to make me engaged with politics, and who make it very hard to be cynical about politicians.

However, one of my MSPs is David McLetchie. His views are… not quite so enlightened:

I welcome the establishment of civil partnerships in Scotland which means that civil partners now have the same legal rights and responsibilities as married couples in terms of their relationship with one another.

Accordingly I do not see the need for further change.

“Separate but equal” is a concept notoriously used in America to justify the situation where blacks were kept from using the facilities, businesses, schools, and many other things that white people were allowed to, while being given supposedly equivalent versions. And yet, somehow, they were never really equal. Blacks had to sit at the back of the bus, walking past all the whites. The black schools were generally more poorly funded and gave less educational opportunity to their students. Separate but equal is now recognised as having been an excuse for more privileged groups to give the impression of treating everyone equally under the law, while actually continuing to oppress minorities. Civil partnerships, however well-intentioned, seem like the modern form of this.

First of all, civil partnerships are restricted from being celebrated in the same way as marriage. Humanists, Unitarians, Quakers, Liberal Jews, and many other organizations would like to run civil partnerships and marriages for same sex couples, but are refused under the current law, violating their religious freedom. (Allowing them to do so would harm the religious freedom of those that disagree… not a jot.) Civil partnerships are therefore not equal under the law.

Secondly, civil partnership is not treated as the same as marriage by society. People in civil partnerships are fairly routinely discriminated against compared to marriage couples, whether from forms not offering the option to note their partnership, it being seen as “not as good as” marriage, or even simple refusal to give civil partners the rights married couples enjoy. A survey of LGBT people in Scotland by the Equality Network showed that of of 103 people in civil partnerships, 58% reported discrimination, ranging from simply having themselves referred to as “not really married”, to banks not understanding why they want to open a joint account with their partner, to the rather horrific experience of hospitals refusing to recognise their civil partners as next of kin (this last is almost certainly illegal, of course, but that doesn’t help much after the fact). And, quite frankly, if they were actually seen as equivalent, why are all the hate groups opposing calling it the same bothering? Actual equivalence would not be compatible with active campaigns to maintain them as separate. Civil partnership is not equivalent to marriage within society.

Thirdly, civil partnership is not actually a particularly common term for the issue (for instance, “civil union” is the more common term in the U.S.). This recognition issue can easily create problems abroad, for example, if one member of the civil partnership fell ill, and had to go into hospital.

Fourthly, the difference between civil partnerships and marriage creates obstacles for married transsexuals wishing to officially change gender. When one member of a married couple seeks and obtains legal recognition of their true gender, they are forcefully divorced. No transition that does not involve them divorcing is available.

In short, civil partnership is not equal to marriage, and the sooner Scotland moves forwards on this issue, the better. Luckily, there are some very optimistic signs: All five political parties in the Scottish Parliament have stated that they are in favour of the move, and polls consistently put about 61% of the Scottish people in favour to 19% opposed. The Equality Network is currently running a petition and letter campaign to keep the pressure up on the government; I’d like to encourage everyone to take part. Keep up the pressure now, and this long-standing injustice has an excellent chance of ending this year.

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