What is gay marriage?
'Gay marriage' is a term used for marriage between two people of the same sex.
The word gay is commonly used for a homosexual man, whereas the word lesbian is used for a homosexual woman, but both are also commonly referred to as either a gay man or a gay woman.
Gay marriage is not as yet legal in the UK.
However, the Civil Partnership Act 2004, which came into force on 5 December 2005, provides same sex couples with a legal recognition of their relationship.
As with married couples, civil partners are subject to a legal framework of rights and obligations in a wide range of areas including taxation and benefits, maintenance and parental responsibility, inheritance of tenancy agreements, hospital visiting rights, protection from domestic violence and immigration and nationality issues.
To legally end a civil partnership, a couple must have been in the partnership for at least a year. Proof must be provided to a court that 'irretrievable breakdown' of the civil partnership has happened, citing specific 'supporting facts' such as unreasonable behaviour or separation for at least two years, before the partnership can be legally 'dissolved'.
Under the Gender Recognition Act 2004, which came into force in April 2005, a transsexual who has been issued with a gender recognition certificate may enter into a civil partnership, or marry, according to his or her acquired gender.
Section 202 of the Equality Act 2010 provided for amendments to the Civil Partnership Act 2004 to remove the prohibition on religious premises registering civil partnerships. The Government launched a consultation in March 2011 on the proposed change.
Draft regulations were laid before Parliament in November 2011, and came into force in December 2011. The Government stressed the 'voluntary nature' of the change which would enable faith groups to 'opt in' whilst protecting those who did not wish to do so.
Although civil marriage is not yet available for same sex couples in the UK, the Government announced in 2011 that it would review the issue as part of its commitment to advancing LGBT equality. A public consultation is set to begin in March 2012. The consultation will only cover civil marriage for same sex couples and not religious marriage.
Male homosexual activity was illegal in the UK until 1967. In the aftermath of the Second World War, convictions for homosexual offences increased markedly, with several high profile figures being prosecuted, leading to increased public pressure for a re-assessment of the law.
Subsequently, the Departmental Committee on Homosexual Offences and Prostitution in Great Britain, headed by Sir John Wolfenden, was set up by the Conservative government in 1954. The resultant Wolfenden Report published in 1957 concluded that criminalisation of homosexuality was an impingement on civil liberty and that homosexual acts between consenting adults in private should not be an offence.
However, the Cabinet at that time declined to implement the Wolfenden recommendations and it was not until a decade later that the Sexual Offences Act of 1967 decriminalised homosexual activity between consenting adults and set the age of homosexual consent at 21, later reduced to 18.
There was no statutory age of consent for lesbian sex until the Sexual Offences Amendment Act 2000 which equalised the age of consent for homosexual and heterosexual men and women to 16 in England, Wales and Scotland. In Northern Ireland the equalised age of consent was reduced to 16 in 2008.
The first civil partnership in the UK was registered on 5 December 2005 between Christopher Cramp and Matthew Roche at Barnabas Hospice, Worthing, West Sussex. The couple were allowed to forego the statutory 15 day waiting period as Matthew Roche was terminally ill with cancer and died the following day.
The first civil partnership in the UK registered after the waiting period was between two women, Shannon Sickles and Grainne Close, at Belfast City Hall, Northern Ireland. This was followed by registrations in Scotland on 20 December 2005 and in England and Wales on 21 December 2005.
Of the Crown Dependencies, the Isle of Man legislated to allow civil partnerships in April 2011 and similar legislation is expected to be enacted in Jersey by April 2012. Civil partnerships have not yet been adopted in Guernsey, although gay rights groups are currently lobbying for their introduction.
Elsewhere in the world, gay marriage has been allowed by some countries since the turn of the century. The Netherlands became the first to legalise same sex marriage in 2001, followed by Belgium in 2003, Spain and Canada 2005, South Africa 2006, Norway and Sweden 2009, and Portugal, Iceland and Argentina in 2010. A few states in the US have also introduced same-sex marriage and others are campaigning to do so.
There are a number of other countries which have stopped short of allowing gay marriage but have introduced civil unions or registered partnerships for same-sex couples.
Despite the aspirations of gay rights groups, and the progress made so far, gay marriage and civil partnerships remain highly controversial issues.
The decision to amend the Civil Partnership Act 2004 in order to remove the prohibition on religious premises registering civil partnerships was widely criticised. The Government acknowledged that a large number of respondents to the consultation opposed the change, but insisted it was committed to "taking this important step for religious freedom and LGB rights”.
The Church of England and the Roman Catholic Church stated that they would not allow their premises to be used for the registration of civil partnerships.
Equally controversial was the Government's announcement that a public consultation on extending civil marriage to same sex couples would be held in 2012 with a view to implementing the changes by 2015.
The Archbishop of Westminster, the Most Reverend Vincent Nichols, said: "To respect a life-long partnership is one thing and to call it a marriage, if you like to annexe the territory of marriage, is something quite different…..I am very disappointed that the Government seems to be choosing this direction."
Former Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Carey, described the proposal to legalise gay marriage as "one of the greatest political power grabs in history.” Lord Carey said: "The state does not 'own' the institution of marriage. Nor does the church. The honourable estate of matrimony precedes both the state and the church, and neither of these institutions have the right to redefine it in such a fundamental way.”
However, Equalities minister Lynne Featherstone said she wanted to "challenge the view" that the Government had no right to change marriage. "It is the Government’s fundamental job to reflect society and to shape the future, not stay silent where it has the power to act and change things for the better," she said.
And she insisted that it was not a battle between gay rights and religious beliefs. "I believe that if a couple love each other and want to commit to a life together, they should have the option of a civil marriage, irrespective of whether they are gay or straight," she said. "We are not prioritising gay rights, or trampling over tradition; we are allowing a space for the two to exist side by side."
Although Christian churches are opposed to gay marriage, they all warn against intolerance of, and discrimination against, homosexuals. They all also face calls from dissenting groups within their churches for the issue of gay marriage to be reconsidered
Homosexuality is forbidden under Islam, but there are increasing reports of gay Muslims seeking equality. And although Orthodox Judaism considers homosexuality to be a violation of Jewish law, Progressive Judaism does not.
British Quakers agreed in 2009 to treat same sex committed relationships in the same way as opposite sex marriages and the British Unitarian Church is also seeking the right to hold marriages for same sex couples.
The provisional number of civil partnerships in the UK in 2010 was 6,385, an increase of 1.7 per cent since 2009.
For the first time in the UK in 2010 more female than male civil partnerships were formed.
The average (mean) age of men forming a civil partnership in the UK in 2010 was 40.6 years. For women the average age was 38.4 years.
By the end of 2010, 1.6 per cent of male civil partnerships in the UK had ended in dissolution, while 3.3 per cent of all UK female partnerships had ended in dissolution.
In 2010, less than one person (0.5) per 1,000 unmarried adults aged 16 and over entered into a civil partnership in England and Wales.
Source: Office for National Statistics 2011
65% of LGB secondary school pupils experience homophobic bullying at school.
One in five gay or lesbian people have experienced a homophobic hate crime or incident in the last three years.
Between 50% and 90% of LGB people anticipate being discriminated against if they were to run for election as a member of a mainstream political party.
Homosexuality is still illegal in over 70 countries worldwide and punishable by death in eight.
Source: Home Office – 2011
"The fact that same-sex marriage has been legalised on three continents demonstrates progress in equality. However, while the right to same-sex marriage may be viewed as the last step in ending discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation, legalisation does not end discrimination, either by officials or other people."
Boris O. Dittrich, acting director of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender Rights Programme at Human Rights Watch - 2011
"Conservatives believe in the ties that bind us; that society is stronger when we make vows to each other and support each other. So I don't support gay marriage despite being a Conservative; I support gay marriage because I'm a Conservative."
The Prime Minister, David Cameron, in a speech to the Conservative Party Conference – October 2011.
"Marriage is a right of passage for couples who want to show they are in a committed relationship, for people who want to show they have found love and wish to remain together until death do them part. Why should we deny it to people who happen to be gay or lesbian who wish to show that commitment and share it with their family, friends and everybody else?"
Equalities Minister Lynne Featherstone - February 2012