T oby Hamley

 

In the UK, civil partnerships were brought into law in 2004 to provide a means by which same-sex couples could access the benefits enjoyed by married heterosexual people: property rights, parental responsibility, tenancy rights, next-of-kin status, life insurance recognition etc. Also like its counterpart, civil partnerships were instituted with broadly the same means of dissolution with some notable differences: one may annul a marriage if the ‘respondent was suffering a venereal disease in a communicable form’ and one may divorce on grounds of adultery. For whatever reason, neither provision exists for civil partnerships.

bride-cake-ceremony-2226The law was a victory for Blair’s Labour government, adding another stripe to its LGBT credentials in that gooey, pre-recession era where everyone could afford university and housing. Perhaps due to the climate, perhaps due to the legislative leap the act represented, the semantic break between the two forms of union wasn’t oft discussed. The differences were made clear in law – a savvy move on the part of the government who managed to gain political capital for having initiated what people referred to as ‘gay marriage’, whilst confining civil partnerships to nonreligious spaces to ward off protest from those for whom ‘marriage’ has particularly sacred connotations.

The Labour government was both in possession of, and tucking into, its cake. Backs were patted, and rightly so – the preceding situation was not only discriminatory but absurd; a reminder both of all that legal unions offer and the punishing cruelty of being without them. Imagine living with a partner in the same house for 30 years, suffering the injury of losing them, followed by the insult of having the same legal status as a flatmate. Such couples spoke of relief, of weights being lifted. As society bedded into this notion, relief turned to reflection. Why should same-sex couples have such a sanitised form of contract if the rights were the same? Why should some be allowed to garrison themselves in a holier-than-thou enclave, one side of an imagined gulf between the sacred ‘marriage’ and the piffling, euphemistic ‘civil partnership’. It was a distinction without much of a difference in terms of law, but socially it was chalk and cheese – one was ‘normal’ the other was akin to tattooing your sexuality on your face.

black-and-white-close-up-engagement-17834When same-sex marriage was legalised in 2013, another reality became apparent. Having previously had no path to legal union, samesex couples now had two. Now the legal distinction without a difference rendered heterosexual couples the recipients of unwelcome status; where before discrimination was manifest in the exclusion of a group from a social credential, it was now present in the opposite. For some, civil partnerships aren’t euphemistic, they’re simpler – the same benefits, without the baggage. Marriage has many unwelcome connotations. The religious aspects are perhaps the most obvious, the patriarchal elements a little more insidious. The ‘giving away’ of a woman to another man is imbued with centuries of male domination, not only of women themselves, but of property. In a very real sense, this makes women themselves into a form of property, only released from the purview of one man when another takes them on (tradition requiring the permission of the father). Most couples, it is probably fair to say, don’t pay much attention to such things.

For others, it is a deep conviction that has seen some petition for equal access to civil partnerships. Rebecca Steinfeld and Charles Keidan recently took their complaint the Supreme Court, where the status quo was declared to be in violation of Article 14 of the European Convention of Human Rights, which states that all should be treated equally under the law regardless of sex or sexual orientation. Not only was the judgement unanimous, but it carried further criticism of the government’s position. They stated that the government had created a situation of inequality and then asked for the ‘indulgence of time’ to figure ‘how that inequality is to be cured’. That, in the court’s opinion was not ‘deserving of a margin of discretion’. For the government the message is clear – sort this out, and do it soon.
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