• Reuters


Peter McGraith and David Cabreza were to marry in London a stroke after midnight Friday, marking the culmination of a campaign to end a distinction many British gay couples say made them feel like second-class citizens.

Saturday will be the first day gay couples will be allowed to tie the knot in England and Wales after the government legalized same-sex marriage last July. While the number of countries legalizing gay marriage has grown significantly since the Netherlands made the first move in 2000, only 17 currently allow the practice.

Gay couples have been allowed since 2005 to enter “civil partnerships,” conferring the same legal rights as marriage, but campaigners say the distinction gives the impression that society considers gay relationships inferior.

“It’s back-of-the-bus thinking,” McGraith said, comparing the rule on civil partnerships to segregation in the pre-civil rights United States, when African-Americans had to sit in the back of public buses. “You understand that sense of the whole wedding thing and baby showers and of it being an indulgence of other people’s and not ours.”

The law’s passage last summer caused deep splits in Prime Minister David Cameron’s ruling Conservative Party, many of whose members are opposed to same-sex marriage because it contradicts their Christian beliefs.

But Cameron has always supported gay marriage and last year said, “It’s been a real pleasure to . . . deliver this landmark social change for our country, which to me still comes back to the simple word of commitment.”

Rainbow-colored flags, international symbols of the gay movement, will be flying over London’s government quarter of Whitehall over the weekend.

But gay marriage has faced opposition from most religious groups in Britain despite shifting public attitudes in favor of it.

The Church of England has struggled to reconcile rifts within its ranks over homosexuality as it seeks to tackle rising secularism and falling attendance rates. In new guidelines issued last month, it barred priests from conducting gay and lesbian weddings or giving a formal blessing for a same-sex marriage performed by local government registrars.

The Anglican Communion, linking Anglicans across and beyond the English-speaking world, has been split for years over gay rights and biblical authority. Britain’s leading Muslim, Catholic and Sikh groups also were all against the enactment of the same-sex marriage law.

But for McGraith, religious opposition is not a concern. “(Same-sex marriage) is not a legal issue, it’s a civil matter and I think that’s where it should stay,” he said.

In England and Wales, homosexuality was decriminalized in 1967, starting a series of reforms to give gay people the same rights as everyone else. But McGraith cautioned that there is still a long road ahead for gay rights across the world.

“If we’d already got to a point where our rights were well recognized around the world, there would be so little attention paid to one little island bringing in an equal marriage,” he said. “Marriage is not the apotheosis of gay rights and emancipation.”

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