The defiant, gruelling and glorious history of same-sex marriage in the UK

Peter McGraith David Cabreza same-sex marriage

Saturday 17 July marks eight years since same-sex marriage became the law of the land in England and Wales, proving once and for all that love always wins. 

The Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act won Royal Assent on 17 July, 2013, paving the way for the first queer couples in England and Wales to marry on 29 March, 2014.

But same-sex marriage was not won in England and Wales overnight. Rather, it was a long, drawn out process that followed years of tireless activism from LGBT+ people across the UK.

Civil partnerships signalled change for same-sex couples in the UK

England and Wales became the first territories in the UK to legalise same-sex marriage when the Act passed all stages of parliament in 2013. Since then, queer couples have also been granted the right to marry in Scotland (in 2014) and, most recently, in Northern Ireland (in 2020) showing that love will always emerge victorious when confronted by bigotry.

While same-sex marriage had never been legal per se, the practice was only explicitly banned in the 1971 Nullity of Marriage Act in England and Wales. LGBT+ couples were also prohibited from marrying through legislation in Scotland and Northern Ireland.

Things finally began to change with the passing of the Civil Partnership Act in 2004. The bill was introduced by Tony Blair‘s Labour Party and gave same-sex couples in the UK much-needed and long overdue legal recognition.

But queer couples remained keenly aware of the fact that civil partnerships were not the same as marriage. The fight for full marriage equality continued, with queer people demanding that they be given the same rights as their straight counterparts.

Celia Kitzinger and Sue Wilkinson were an instrumental part of that fight. The British lesbian couple married in British Columbia, Canada, in August 2003, following the legalisation of same-sex marriage in that territory. But when they returned to England, their marriage was only recognised as a civil partnership.

A legal battle ensued, with the couple fighting to be recognised as a married couple by the English legal system. In a press release issued by civil rights group Liberty, the couple said their fight was “about equality”.

“We want our marriage to be recognised as a marriage – just like any other marriage made in Canada. It is insulting and discriminatory to be offered a civil partnership instead. Civil partnerships are an important step forward for same-sex couples, but they are not enough. We want full equality in marriage.”

Marriage hasn’t changed our own relationship. I wear a wedding band, and thought I would feel self-conscious – a lot of people assume I have a wife – but I don’t.

Kitzinger and Wilkinson were dealt a heavy blow on 31 July, 2006, when the High Court ruled that their marriage could only be recognised as a civil partnership in England. While the couple were unsuccessful, their legal battle put the issue of marriage equality front and centre in the public eye.

The fight for full marriage equality trundled on until the 2010 general election, when England’s biggest political parties realised the issue was on the table and would have to be dealt with. In the lead-up to the election, then-Conservative shadow chancellor of the exchequer George Osborne said the party would “consider the case” for same-sex marriage.

The Labour Party officially supported equal marriage after Ed Miliband became leader in 2010, while Nick Clegg, then-leader of the Liberal Democrats, said the party would back legislation in 2009.

Same-sex marriage was legalised, paving the way for the first queer weddings

A key milestone on the journey for same-sex marriage occurred in February 2010, when PinkNews secured the backing of the first-ever UK party leaders to introduce same-sex marriage.

While responding to questions from PinkNews readers, Nick Clegg, then the leader of the Liberal Democrats, became the first to back a change in the law. David Cameron, then Conservative party leader and soon-to-be PinkNews Award winner, told PinkNews readers he’d only consider the case to change the law if he became prime minister.

Later that year, following the 2010 general election, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats former a coalition and the government would later launch a public consultation into same-sex marriage, in 2011. That same year, David Cameron expressed his support for same-sex marriage.

The public consultation results, published in 2012, showed that 53 per cent of people agreed that all couples should be allowed to marry, while 46 per cent disagreed. The consultation paved the way for the government to push ahead with legislation.

On 15 March, 2012, the PinkNews‘ Out4Marriage campaign was founded, which saw figures as diverse as Richard Branson, The Saturdays and Peter Tatchell lobbying for same-sex marriage in videos shared on YouTube. A number of MPs, including Theresa May, Lynne Featherstone and Jack Straw also recorded videos calling for equal marriage.

A heartwarming short film released in April 2012 by award-winning filmmaker Mike Buonaiuto for the Coalition for Equal Marriage campaign, and backed by PinkNews, captured the mood of the nation, amassing more than half a million views in less than one week.

Other politicians instrumental in the fight for equal marriage include lord Nick Herbert, the first openly gay man to be elected for the Conservatives and now Boris Johnson’s “special envoy on LGBT+ rights”, Tory minister and baroness Tina Stowell, who was responsible for guiding same-sex marriage through the House of Lords, and stalwart Labour MP Yvette Cooper.

Maria Miller, then minister for women and equalities, introduced the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill on 24 January 2013. The law passed successfully through the House of Commons on its second reading by 400 to 175 votes. It later passed through the House of Lords and was granted Royal Assent by Queen Elizabeth II on 17 July 2013, paving the way for queer couples to marry from 29 March, 2014.

There were jubilant scenes in England and Wales on 29 March, 2014, when same-sex couples were finally able to profess their love for each other publicly and be treated as equal under the law.

Peter McGraith and David Cabreza became the first same-sex couple to tie the knot shortly after midnight on that fateful day. In an interview with The Guardian in 2019, McGraith said: “Marriage hasn’t changed our own relationship. I wear a wedding band, and thought I would feel self-conscious – a lot of people assume I have a wife – but I don’t.”

A number of other couples said their vows that day, including Teresa Millward and Helen Brearley and Sean Adl-Tabatabai and Sinclair Treadway. Sandi Toksvig, who had formerly been in a civil partnership with her partner Debbie, renewed her vows in a heartfelt ceremony in London.

LGBT+ rights campaigner Peter Tatchell served as chief witness at the wedding ceremony of McGraith and Cabreza. Speaking after the couple tied the knot, Tatchell said the monumental legal change had “made history” and would make Britain “a more tolerant, equal place”.

Scotland later followed suit, with the first same-sex marriages taking place there on 31 December, 2014. Equal marriage finally became a reality in Northern Ireland on 13 January 2020, meaning queer couples finally have the right to marry in all territories of the UK.

The emotional journey and the lived history for the fight for same-sex marriage can be found in detail in Equal Ever After, a book from former Liberal Democrat MP and equalities minister Lynne Featherstone.