Man to Man, Brit to Brit?

by Anna Calori

In the last few weeks, Britain's impending decision concerning the legalisation of same-sex marriage right seemed to permeate our screens like a dark rom-com where the protagonist, who might have been a cheap imitation of Hugh Grant, is in a 'will he, won't he' situation with himself. The necessity of loudly asserting one’s opinion on the matter had become overwhelming: were we going to side with the boring, Bruegellian mass of conservatives, or join the Pollockian portrait of the Progressives? For most, it seemed to be a “Yes or No” question, that did not allow for any “maybes”, leading to helplessness - if not real horror - for the eternally undecided. What is interesting, though, is the blurred and disparate meaning that this word “marriage” has come to symbolise: a graded contrast in all the ranks, from Sauron XVI to the MPs of Gondor. Some argue that marriage is a mere institution, and has to be treated as such. Co-incidentally, these people don't like the “flowery plowery” people on the other side of the argument, who are determined to make marriage an all-inclusive undeniable freedom; and in between lies a whole spectrum of Victorian puritans and defrosted hippies. However, the fractured concept of marriage, and its union with inalienable rights has set a precedent for British politics with which it must approach the sibling issues of this controversy.

 Now, this controversy is much more complicated than what I have presented so far, and the dichotomy much more fluid. But this is exactly the point. The vast expanse of meaning that the semantic field of the word “marriage” has come to cover leaves space for an enormous amount of interpretations; “marriage” encloses a multiplicity of concepts that the modern state has been trying to define and separate since its own birth. It’s been there since John Locke decided to bless us with his marvelous theorisation of private property as a fundamental human right, and the Lutheran Reforms tried to divide the modern state into three separate spheres. Now marriage, still conventionally considered and perceived as primarily a religious act, has become part of those private rights and freedoms of all citizens, claimed and performed in public. This overlap of meaning inevitably led to a conflicting debate over the only truth: shall we, or shall we not, consider marriage as an inalienable right, that must be granted to anyone, “without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status” and sexual orientation?

What was indeed implied in this debate was that the right to enter in a civil or religious contract is universal, and shouldn’t be denied to any citizen willing to do so. Personally, I couldn’t agree more. The recent, unprecedented openings of some members of the catholic church – who will very soon be struck and executed…er, excommunicated - to civil unions for gay partners shows how this debate is bound to affect the civil institutions. This confrontation between the state and – almost directly – its own citizens embodies the universalisation of an undeniable freedom, by focusing on something extremely symbolic – that is, ultimately, the strength of love against all odds. However, by stigmatizing gay love as the crux of this controversy, it has completely failed to tackle an intrinsically related, mostly un-discussed and yet urgent issue: that of marriage among people of different nationalities.

If we assume that marriage is de facto part of what we broadly consider as “civil rights” it is reasonable to expect that such legal contract will not allow for any kind of discrimination – in particular towards citizens of the state in which such a contract is sealed. However, in a country like Britain, the reality of thousands of “immigrants” – to use a term restlessly frequent in all of Theresa May’s (the UK Home Secretary) worst nightmares – has been swept under the rug of both Downing Street and Buckingham Palace. A few weeks after the triumphant jubilation over discriminatory conservatives and church goers, and a year after the royal wedding with its media bombings still roaring fresh in our ears, and images of white dresses, white flowers, white teeth, white sisters still vivid in our memory, the reality for British citizens wanting to marry non-nationals is very, very different from the infinite sequence of plastered smiles.

According to a law approved last June, British nationals have to legitimise their love for so-called nationals in front of what appears to be the most powerful state institution: treasury. They have in fact to prove an annual income of at least £20,000 if they want to marry a foreigner; £30,000, if they’ve been so stupid to give birth to another welfare-devourer in the meantime. Moreover, they will have to undergo years of bureaucratic nightmares, as the news comes in of a 5 year extension on the “probation period” i.e. the time-frame where couples have to prove their love for each other and their commitment towards a shared future, by showing to the Home Office employees how they know useless details about each other’s habits and idiosyncrasies (“My husband keeps his Marmite and shoe polish jars in the same cupboard”; “My lady can’t stand underlined books – she throws them at me every time she finds one”; “My husband likes to fold his bait box with the Daily Mail”; “She thinks Boris Jonson’s hot, I prefer Pippa Middleton”).

On the long term, this brilliant initiative should strongly discourage foreign immigration – which main pull-factor appears to be British yummy mummies and old oilmen. What it does on the short period, however, is forcing couples to an exhausting saga of public justification of what should be strictly private affairs. This particular situation is somehow not dissimilar to the one faced by gay partners: in both cases, it is required to continuously demonstrate and legitimise something which is intrinsically improvable, and ultimately private – in front of every institution and social entity, skeptical families included. British citizens are disgracefully affected and limited by their own state if they wish to marry someone who wanted to be as far from Theresa May as possible at the time of their birth. What the House of Commons has ratified - a real step forward for civil and LGBT rights, no doubt - breaks legal discriminations on the ground of civil rights. But one wonders how many of those 400 MPs would extend the same support to the rights of their fellow citizens.

Photo: Matthew Smith

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