Today is the first day on which two people of the same gender can have a ceremony and register as ‘married’ in the United Kingdom. D and I have a civil partnership, a registration of a same-sex relationship which confers the same legal rights as though we were married. Civil partnerships were introduced in 2004.
There is much media hoo-ha over the introduction of ‘same-sex marriage’ and there are many angles from which people view it. Some people feel that the protection put in place for those who see marriage as a religious matter is not sufficient and that at some point churches or ministers who believe same-sex marriage to be morally wrong will be forced to conduct a ceremony. Some feel that marriage is about having and raising children – which apparently same sex couples are not able to do. (Given the number of children being brought up in second marriages of heterosexual couples I don’t see that it is any different if that second marriage happens to be a same sex one. Insemination by various means and adoption is open to same sex couples. I therefore think that this argument is somewhat spurious.) Some same-sex couples feel that they would not want enter into something called marriage in that it is aping what straight couples do. To them it’s clearly a failed institution anyway and who would want to do that?
D and I had already been a couple for 13 years at the point civil partnerships were introduced. That the state suddenly deigned to sanction a union which had already lasted longer than many marriages was not a motivating factor for us. (Around a quarter of UK marriages have ended in divorce by then. [Office of National Statistics]) However, without a civil partnership D would not be my legal next of kin. When I was rushed to hospital with peritonitis a few years previously he would not have had any legal say in how I was treated if I had become unconscious. Had I died none of my savings, pension, non-jointly owned property or possessions would have automatically passed to him, and any that I willed to him would have been subject to inheritance tax.
We registered our civil partnership with the absolute minimum of fuss. We did not invite anyone other than our two witnesses, who were our most long-standing joint friend and our most recent one. We decamped to a hotel for a lovely lunch for the four of us afterwards. Neither of us can recall the exact date without looking it up. The date that matters to us is the date we met, almost 23 years ago, shortly after which we became committed to each other.
In yesterday’s news on the BBC website a survey for BBC Radio5 Live found that a fifth of Britons would turn down an invitation to a same-sex wedding. The article brushes over some of the reasons people might do so. ‘Fr Montgomery, who at 29 is the youngest priest in the diocese of Shrewsbury said … as marriage predates “the State”, it should not be the government’s place to change its meaning.’ It doesn’t point out that Fr Montgomery has conveniently forgotten than marriage also pre-dates the Christian church and was hijacked by that institution in exactly the same way that it was hijacked by “the State”.
Of course not all people who say they would turn down an invitation to a same-sex wedding do so for religious reasons. I suspect that a good number of those people saying so would not in fact do so in practice. My reasoning is that the people who get invited to weddings are, on the whole, close friends and family of those involved. You can’t choose your family – but you do choose your friends. So an invitation to a wedding is most likely to come from a friend. Someone you like, respect, and choose to spend time with. We might question or disapprove of our friends’ choices of partner. We may think them unwise, a bad match, or just not get on with the person ourselves. We don’t generally use that as a reason to turn down a wedding invitation. We go because we are their friend.
All this aside, the fact remains that there are a significant number of people who are prejudiced against homosexuality. That prejudice manifests itself in many subtle ways. I watched an elderly couple walking past our house hand-in-hand just this week and that is something that D and I would not do, knowing the trouble it would likely cause. We just don’t have the energy to fight those battles every day when there is shopping to be done or trains to catch.
One of the places that prejudice can manifest is in the processing of things like application forms. Forms often still ask for ‘marital status’ and where there is a tick-box selection or drop-down on-line it usually includes civil partnership as a separate option. Ticking that box immediately declares someone’s sexuality. So when someone is sifting job applications say, and there are twenty applications for the job, how easy it is for the prejudiced person to just put that form to the bottom of the pile. Yes, it’s illegal, but who’s going to know?
Fortunately I’m not likely to find myself filling in that particular sort of form in the near future. I already refer to D as ‘my husband’ and he does likewise. Other than the convenience of not having to correct that to ‘civil partner’ in some contexts I don’t currently see any advantage of commuting our partnership to a marriage. There are, however, those for whom the name does matter. There are religious people of the same sex who do want a marriage, and their churches support them in that. (The Quakers for example.) And there are people for whom the avoidance of possible prejudice is significant.
At the end of it all loving consensual relationships between people are about the people involved. If two people have lived in a committed relationship it is nothing other than cruelty to treat either party as though that relationship did not exist. Those relationships, and how we choose to name them are not owned by the state or a particular church.