Comment: Are titles a gay rights (or feminist) issue?

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Ahead of the first same-sex marriages in England and Wales, Reader in Law Daniel Monk says it’s time to remove the gender bias in titles, meaning Sir Elton’s John’s civil partner, David Furnish, would be eligible for an honorary title, and the same would apply for the female spouse of a civil partner who receives a title.

When a man with a title marries a woman, his wife automatically receives the female equivalent title. Thus the wife of a Duke is a Duchess, a Baron’s wife is a Baroness, and the wife of a Knight (referred to as ‘Sir’) can use the title Lady. But when a woman with a title marries a man or when a gay man or lesbian with a title enters a civil partnership (or next year gets married) their spouses or partners have no title. So if a gay man enters a civil partnership with a Duke, or a hunky Baronet, he remains a common ‘Mr’ (whatever his friends might call him).

The Equality (Titles) Bill 2013 currently being debated in the House of Lords seeks to change this.

Clause 10 of the Bill states that: “Any person who is, or who has been at any time . . . the civil partner of any man or woman who holds a title as a peer, baronet, baronetess, knight or dame shall be entitled to use the courtesy title 
”The Honourable”’.

And Clause 9 provides that the husbands of women with titles will similarly be entitled to use the title “The Honourable”.

One response to these proposals is, understandably, ‘who cares?!’. And similarly compelling responses are: ‘wouldn’t it be better for Parliament to spend its time (and tax payers’ money) focusing on LGBT sexual and mental health issues and homophobic violence’ and ‘if we’re really serious about equality why don’t we just get rid of all titles’.

So why is this even being debated? It is not because gay and lesbian people with titles have been campaigning for it. The proposal did not come from Stonewall and none of the ‘out’ gay and lesbian peers have taken part in the debates. The answer is simply that the above proposals have been tacked on to a Bill the main purpose of which is to enable hereditary peerages to be inherited by daughters (either where there is no male heir or when otherwise a peerage would be inherited by a distant male relative or when a daughter is the first born child).

A key argument made in support of the proposals is that the peerage should comply with equality legislation and in doing so keep in step with the recent moves towards gender equality adopted by the royal family (for if the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge’s child had been a girl she would have taken precedence over any subsequent sons). Including a provision in the Bill about gays and lesbians simply adds weight and wider appeal to the ‘modernisation’ argument.

Some might argue, ‘well, why not?’. However trivial these proposals might seem they are, after all, pretty harmless and, moreover, are simply a logical application of arguments premised on formal equality, in other words of symbolic if not of any practical significance. And in this way it is not dissimilar, in many respects, to the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013.

But if the Bill, as far as heterosexual women and gays and lesbians with titles are concerned, is about symbolism, there is a fundamental and telling flaw. Because enabling their spouses or partners to use the title ‘The Honourable’ explicitly treats them as different to heterosexual men. For if equal treatment is the aim then the husband of a Baroness should be entitled to the title Baron, the civil partner of a Baroness should also be entitled to use the title Baroness and the civil partner of a Baron should, similarly, be a Baron. That this approach is deemed unacceptable or confusing and that it is only heterosexual men who can ‘raise’ their spouses to their equivalent level merely serves to reinforce the privileged status of straight men and gendered assumptions of inequality and dependency. A ‘modernising’ trivial provision in this way reveals the all too often overlooked connections between feminism and gay and lesbian rights.

If aristocrats want to cling on to their privileges and status we should send out a clear message: ‘not in our name’. Or, at the very least: ‘get the names right’. Alternatively, following in the noble footsteps of the late Her Imperial Highness Regina Fong, we should perhaps instead celebrate our own playful games with names and invent a few more. Any suggestions?

Daniel Monk is a Reader in Law based at Birkbeck, University of London.

Email: [email protected]