Marriage equality was won once and for all in England and Wales five years ago. On 29 March 2014, dozens of same-sex couples stepped blinking into the camera flashes and out the other side into their new married lives, with the same legal status as their straight peers – right? Well, not quite. It’s true that today marks five years since the government stopped telling people who they could and could not marry on the basis of gender. But it continues to dictate who has the right to love – it’s just that now, that judgement is based on income.
We have a personal stake in the fight for marriage equality. We’re a British lesbian couple who married in Canada in 2003. On returning home, we found ourselves ‘unmarried’ again – our marriage wasn’t legally recognised here. Two years later, with the introduction of the Civil Partnership Act, it was deemed a civil partnership. This is not what we wanted – any heterosexual couple who married abroad would automatically have their marriage recognised as such in their home country. So, supported by Liberty and OutRage!, we went to the High Court in 2006 seeking a declaration of the validity of our marriage as a marriage. We lost our case. The judge acknowledged discrimination, but said it was justified in order to protect the institution of traditional, heterosexual, marriage.
That judgment didn’t stand the test of time. Eight years later, in 2014, the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act came in, and our marriage was legally recognised in our home country, alongside those of many other same-sex couples now able to marry for the first time. Today is the five-year anniversary of that historic day.
But while we celebrate the anniversary of that step forward for marriage equality, we also recognise that there’s still plenty of work to do. Same-sex couples still cannot marry in Northern Ireland; and civil marriage is not enough for same-sex couples of faith whose communities do not recognise their marriage. And, in particular, one huge barrier still stands in the way of us achieving true marriage equality: rules that restrict our right to love on the basis of what we earn.
In 2012 – while we were still fighting for same-sex marriage rights – the coalition government quietly introduced huge changes to this country’s regulations on immigration. Now, anyone wanting to live here with a partner from outside the EU has to be earning at least £18,600 a year. These rules mean that not everyone has the right to love who they choose. Millions of people – including hundreds of thousands of NHS workers, care providers and teaching assistants – are told they don’t earn enough to deserve a family life in this country. Thousands of couples have been forced to live apart for years while the British partner struggles to earn enough, or else have left the country to be together elsewhere. So much for family values.
And of course, like all injustice, these rules have the harshest impact on those already facing discrimination. We know that workers from BME backgrounds earn around 10% less than their white peers. Meanwhile the gender pay gap, while falling, continues to mean that women earn nearly 9% less than male peers on average. University of Oxford academics last year found that British working women are 30% less likely to earn enough to sponsor a non-EEA partner compared to their male counterparts.
So, of course, sexism combined with structural racism mean that women of colour are the most discriminated against by these rules. Think of the young black mother pushed out of a burgeoning career that she loved just because she didn’t earn quite enough to be joined by her partner, and is having to care for their twin babies alone instead. Or the Asian woman who, despite working full-time for the NHS, doesn’t make the income requirement and so lives thousands of miles from her husband, barred from starting the family she dreams of. Surely, in 2019, we can demand better than this, for women and for everyone.
Even for those who may not have the significant milestones in the fight for marriage equality marked in their calendars, today’s date will resonate. As well as being the wedding anniversary of the dozens of same-sex couples who were first in the queue to say their vows in 2014, it will now forever be remembered as the anniversary of the day the UK didn’t leave the EU. For the huge numbers of British people with a partner from a country that’s part of the EU, the passing of this date sans Brexit will provide a respite of sorts. That’s because the government, rather than acknowledging how regressive the current system is, plans to extend them to British citizens with a partner from inside the EU, too – despite admitting to having no idea how many people this will affect. That means that anyone who has the temerity to fall in love with anybody who hails from outside this small island should ensure they have a healthy bank balance before they start dreaming of building a life together.
Plans to extend the income threshold seem particularly irrational given that the government doesn’t have a shred of evidence that the current rules are achieving anything. They said the rules were brought in to save money, but haven’t even attempted to estimate the financial impact they’ve had – and would be hard-pressed to, since people in the UK on a spouse visa have never had access to benefits anyway. They said the rules were designed to improve the integration of non-EU spouses – but again, could not hazard a guess as to the effect these rules have had over the past 6 years and counting.
In reality, the only evidence of the impact this policy has is of the damage it causes. Whose interests are served by a system that splits families down the middle and drives young mothers thousands of miles from their support networks? It’s hard to believe that anyone’s life has got better because of a rule that means only some of us are allowed to love whoever we choose. That’s why, while we toast today’s anniversary of a milestone in the fight for marriage equality and social justice, we also recognise that the battle is half-won - until everyone is equal, nobody is.