Brian Heaphy, University of Manchester

2014 marks the tenth anniversary of Civil Partnership in the UK, and from March this year same-sex couples will have access to legal marriage. Many observers were surprised by the fact that it was a Conservative-led government that oversaw the legalization of same-sex marriage. However, viewed through the lens of the neo-liberal ideals that frame the current government’s economic and social policies, the recognition of same-sex marriage ‘rights’ and responsibilities is not, in fact, so startling. It fits with the general effort to off-load the state’s responsibilities for ‘dependents’ onto families and communities while providing the gloss of a modernised Conservative party that is committed to fairness, if not to equality. In addition, while there is little doubt that the popular representation of civil partnerships as ‘gay marriage’ laid the groundwork for same-sex marriage, there are also longer term and more general developments that enabled it to become a reality.

By the time civil partnerships were introduced, marriage had long been the focus of contingent commitments, where partners married, may or not have had children, divorced, and often married again. Marriage already sat alongside a myriad of other possibilities for organizing adult (couple) relationships (e.g. cohabitation, serial and more ad hoc partnering, ‘living together apart’). In the 1980s cohabitation was well established as an alternative to marriage, and the definition of marriage itself was changing and being extended to encompass a broad range of relationships in practice (Mansfield and Collard1988: 4). Mansfield and Collard linked this to changes in the public image of marriage where there was a shift ‘in emphasis from the external structure of married life to the private meaning of marital relationships: the public institution of marriage has become privatised’ (ibid). Indeed, the definition of marriage had become so extended that the term ‘informal marriage’ was sometimes used in policy debates to include cohabiting and committed couples. By the time Civil Partnership came into law ‘marriage’ could, notionally at least, refer to all manner of committed couple relationships, so it was really only a matter of time before same–sex couples should be included within it and seek formal recognition of the status.

Despite this, and the claims made to relational citizenship by critical sexual communities from the 1980s onwards, research carried out in the 1990s suggested a high degree of ambivalence about marriage amongst many lesbians and gay men themselves. Claims to relational citizenship by sexual minorities in the later decades of the 20th Century emerged in a social and political context in which same-sex relationships and ‘queer’ families were denigrated in law and policy (e.g. ‘Section 28’)[i] as a result of anxieties that were linked to the perceived consequences of sexual ‘liberation’ and AIDS, and that were inflamed by the New Right. At the heart of these claims was a demand for respect for and recognition of lesbian and gay parenting, partnering, and elective family commitments at a time when personal decisions with respect to parenting, ‘chosen’ next-of-kin, end-of-life care and inheritance could be, and were often, contested. Such claims gathered further momentum throughout the 1990s and into the 2000s as a politicised generation of lesbians and gay men, who had forged confident identities through the feminist and critical sexual communities of the 1960s and 1970s, were reaching an age when issues of next-of-kin, inheritance, pension rights, care, bereavement and support were becoming especially pertinent.

A study my colleagues and I conducted eight years before the introduction of Civil Partnership suggested that, amongst lesbians and gay men themselves, the idea that marriage was the best or preferred way of recognizing intimate and relational ‘rights’ was far from universally accepted. Commenting on this finding, we noted:

[The] tension between wanting to be treated equally, yet not really desiring the heterosexual option of marriage, was a common theme we encountered…While most non-heterosexuals in this study think that they should have the choice to get married, and a small minority would like to get married, there are also those who feel that…their relationships are – or have the potential to be – radically different from heterosexual relationships. And thus, marriage is perceived to be a restrictive institution of the state, epitomizing the worst aspects of heterosexuality with its prescribed gendered roles and unequal power balance (Weeks, Heaphy and Donovan, 2001: 192-193)

In that study, participants tended to emphasise the difference between their relationships and heterosexual married ones. They also drew on examples from their own previous heterosexual relationships and marriages, as well as those of their parents and heterosexual associates, to underline the distinctiveness of their relationships in terms of constructions of family that did not necessarily prioritise legal or ‘blood’ ties (except for children) over friendship bonds; practices of emotional and sexual intimacy did not necessarily prioritise ‘the couple’ and monogamy; and creative relational practices that were underpinned by a feminist and/or sexual  liberationist egalitarian ethos.

New generational hegemony

In the light of the range of relationships that critical sexual communities sought recognition for, and the ambivalence about marriage, where did the push for recognition in the form of couple and marriage ‘rights’ come from? Some have argued that it reflected the economic and social interests of global lesbian and gay political elites. Others have argued that it represented the grassroots desires of ‘ordinary’ lesbians and gay men. These are not incompatible arguments, and it is likely that by the 2000s the desires, as well as public and behind-the scenes activities of lesbian and gay political elites, converged with the desires of self-perceived ‘ordinary’ (as opposed to highly vocal and politically radical) lesbians and gay men to make couple rights and marriage seem like the ‘obvious’ focus of claims to intimate and relational citizenship (even if there were alternatives, see Weeks et al, 2001).

In a recent book Same-Sex Marriages: New Generations, New Relationships Carol Smart, Anna Einarsdottir and myself highlight how ‘ordinariness’ emerged as a strong theme in an ESRC funded study of younger same-sex couples’ civil partnerships (respondents were aged under 35 when they formalised their relationship). The empirical work was undertaken five to seven years after Civil Partnership had been introduced and before the present government’s plan to introduce same-sex marriage was announced. The majority of the partners we studied viewed and presented their relationships as ‘ordinary marriages’. They believed that they shared the same ideals and aspirations as their heterosexual contemporaries (enduring, loving, honest, equal and stable relationships), and that nowadays heterosexual and same-sex relationships were organised around the same kind of relating practices  (mutual care, emotional and sexual monogamy, negotiated domestic and financial lives, creating time to be together, mutual relationship work).

In describing civil partnerships as they did – as marriages that were similar to or ‘the same as’ their heterosexual generational peers’ – our participants subscribed to a commonly held set of beliefs: that marriage has become a democratic institution – where women and men (and since civil partnership, woman and women and men and men) meet as equals. This is fast becoming the dominant story about marriage in the era of same-sex marriage. Arguably, it is one that encourages women and men to see marriage as a free choice that enables a couple relationship – or couple-centred family – to have access to benefits still provided by the state without gender and sexual inequalities. The lure of this for same-sex couples, who have historically been excluded from the supports and advantages afforded to heterosexuals by legal and social recognition, is a powerful one. As well as the more obvious advantages of marriage in terms of the protection of parenting arrangements, survivor pensions and inheritance, the partners we studied more often emphasised how getting ‘married’ provided an enhanced sense of personal security and stability and of social, familial and community inclusion. The rewards are such that they are willing to invest a high degree of labour in being both ‘ordinary’ and ‘married’.


The introduction of same-sex marriage in the UK will, no doubt, strengthen the already hegemonic notion that marriage has transformed into a democratic, freely chosen, and open institution, rather than a patriarchal relic of a less secular past. If this were true, we would have good reason to celebrate. Even if it is not the case, we can celebrate the legal protections it offers those same-sex couples that want to participate in it. At the same time, it would be naive to see same-sex marriage as representing a defining moment of intimate and relational freedom, choice, and democracy. In terms of freedom and choice, as formal marriage becomes the route through which access to intimate and relational rights is assured for ‘all’, the issue of what legal and social supports should be made available for other intimate and relational forms is increasingly sidelined. There are many forms of relationships that have diminished or no ‘automatic’ access to intimate or relational ‘rights’ (be they cohabiting same-sex or heterosexual couples, friendship and elective families, non-monogamous and polyamorous relationships). While notions of democratic heterosexual relationships and marriages have appeared in many conceptual guises throughout the latter half of the 20th Century, they have been thoroughly dismantled by feminist and critical sexuality analysts. In the rush to celebrate same-sex marriage we need to take care not to embrace a progressivist view of the contemporary that consigns the critical insights of previous generations to the past. The risk is that we subscribe to a diminished and constrained sense of relational possibilities, and how they might be legally and socially supported.


Heaphy, B. Smart, C. and Einarsdottir, A. (2013) Same-sex Marriages: New Generations, New Experiences. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Mansfield, P. and Collard, J. (1988) The Beginning of the Rest of Your Life? Basingstoke: Macmillan.

Weeks, J., Heaphy, B. Donovan, C. (2001) Same-sex Intimacies: Families of Choice and Other Life Experiments. London: Routledge.

[i] Section 28 of the Local Government Act 1988 caused the controversial addition of Section 2A to the Local Government Act 1986. The amendment stated that a Local Authority “shall not intentionally promote homosexuality or publish material with the intention of promoting homosexuality” or “promote the teaching in any State maintained school of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship” It was repealed on 21 June 2000 in Scotland, and on 18 November 2003 in the rest of the UK.

Brian Heaphy is Professor of Sociology and a member of The Morgan Centre for the Study of Relationships and Personal Life at the University of Manchester.