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As Obama joins a global trend towards gay marriage, the UK should too

11 May 2012

President Obama joins prime minister David Cameron and the new French president, Francois Hollande, in backing same-sex marriage. It's one of the great moral and human rights crusades of our age – and it's an unstoppable global trend. There is a growing momentum to end the ban on gay marriage in more and more countries, from Cuba to Finland, Uruguay, Nepal, Denmark, Brazil, Australia and Colombia.

Obama's support will have a huge positive impact. It will boost the worldwide campaign for marriage equality and, through media reporting of his support, raise awareness of gay marriage among billions of people in every corner of the globe. Even people living under tyrannical, homophobic regimes will hear the message of gay equality. It is significant that Obama's change of heart was influenced by the sacrifices of US lesbian and gay military personnel and by discussions with his family and friends, including gay White House staffers and gay parents at his daughters' school. This concurs with existing evidence that people who know a gay person are more likely to support gay equal rights.

Endorsing marriage equality was a brave move, given the upcoming presidential elections and the fierce, powerful opposition he will now face from republicans and religious conservatives. Ending the ban on gay marriage is likely to be one of the defining issues of the 2012 White House race. It could be the issue with which Obama rediscovers his crusading zeal and wins the moral high ground. In some respects, however, Obama is merely catching up with the historical trend towards equality. Same-sex couples are already allowed to marry in Canada, Spain, Portugal, Argentina, Norway, Sweden, Belgium, the Netherlands, Iceland and South Africa, plus some regions in Mexico and Brazil. Denmark is expected to legalise gay marriage next month. Within the US, gay marriage laws have been passed in Connecticut, the District of Columbia, Iowa, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, Vermont and Washington. A majority of Americans support equal marriage rights for all.

Obama's move throws the spotlight back on Cameron and recent wavering in the Tory ranks on this issue. The UK campaign for marriage equality has been spearheaded by the Equal Love campaign involving a twin-track strategy, both political and legal. We've succeeded in persuading the government to legalise gay marriage by 2015, although the prime minister is under pressure from a rump of homophobic Tory MPs to drop this commitment.

But despite his pledge of equal marriage rights, Cameron is, thus far, refusing to end the ban on heterosexual civil partnerships and the ban on religious same-sex marriages by faith organisations that wish to conduct them. As a back-up plan, Equal Love has filed a legal case in the European Court of Human Rights. Four gay couples and four straight couples have applied to overturn Britain's twin bans on same-sex civil marriages and opposite-sex civil partnerships. They seek full equality in civil marriage and civil partnership law.

Gay marriage is all about love. The love of same-sex couples is just as real, strong and committed as that of married heterosexual men and women. Prohibiting same-sex marriage devalues and denigrates the love of lesbian and gay partners. It signifies our continuing second class legal status; to have separate laws for gay and straight people is a form of sexual apartheid.

In a democratic society, everyone should be equal before the law. British public opinion is overwhelmingly in favour of same-sex marriage. A Populus poll in March 2012 found that 65% of the public agreed that: "Gay couples should have an equal right to get married, not just to have civil partnerships." Only 27% disagreed. This represents a steep decline in opposition to marriage equality.

Public support for gay marriage is double the support secured by the Tories in last week's local elections. If Cameron wants to win back lost votes, he should fast-track legislation for equal marriage rights.

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guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media 2012

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