Civil partnerships: let’s get one thing straight

The UK government has its own reasons for pushing a form of gay marriage - and it’s not about equality, or even being nice.

Jennie Bristow

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Congratulations to all those gay couples poised to tie the knot, as the UK’s new law permitting ‘civil partnerships’ comes into force. For those who want to pledge their undying love, it’s nice that there is now a formal way of doing so; just as it is humane and practical to permit gay couples the legal rights that civil partnership will bestow.

But from a cultural point of view, there is something distinctly odd about the Civil Partnerships Act, and the way it has been promoted by the government and greeted by society. ‘This is an important piece of legislation that gives legal recognition to relationships which until now were invisible in the eyes of the law’, Meg Munn, the little-known ‘minister for equality’, told the BBC News website (1). According to the Financial Times, the government has described the Civil Partnership Act as its ‘most significant piece of social legislation’ – a rather shocking testimony to its own low horizons (2). But what is a civil partnership? What does it do?

‘It accords people in same-sex relationships the same sort of rights and responsibilities that are available to married couples’, says Munn. ‘We know there are people who have been together maybe 40 years and have been waiting for the chance to do this kind of thing, because of the important differences it makes to their lives. They have the same concerns as married couples – tenancy, ownership, pensions and inheritance.’ In other words, a civil partnership between two homosexual individuals is just like marriage. But it emphatically isn’t marriage, and it does not treat gay people as if they are straight. It is a different kind of institution, explicitly designed for different kind of people. Voilà equality, New Labour-style.

Some gay groups, notably Stonewall, have waxed lyrical about how the new civil partnership ceremonies will be about ‘removing discrimination’, because ‘society now legally recognises gay relationships for the first time’ (3). But when the gay rights movement discussed marriage in the past, they did not call to be ‘recognised’ by the state or campaign to get their mitts on their partners’ pensions and inheritance. Marriage was seen as a problem, representing a stark distinction between ‘normal’ and ‘not normal’, an institutionalisation of difference between heterosexual partnerships and the rest. The gay movement wanted to challenge the institution of marriage, not conform to the ideas of straight society by getting wed.

It is hard to see how the creation of a ‘different-but-equally-valid’ institution in the form of civil partnerships settles the old equality scores. Then again, maybe it’s not about gay equality at all.

The introduction of civil partnerships is not unique to the UK. Similar schemes are in place throughout Europe, while a handful of countries – Belgium, the Netherlands and (more surprisingly) Spain – have gone the whole hog and allowed gay marriage (4). The issue polarised much of the debate in the 2004 US Presidential Elections. But whatever has sparked this sudden wave of legislation allowing gay couples to share property rights and other such technicalities, it’s not down to the campaigners. The gay rights lobby, after all, is not easily missed – traditionally colourful, camp and querulous, you would notice if the streets had been taken over by dykes and queens demanding their rights. In fact, over recent years the gay rights lobby has become strangely quiet, often invisible; this year the annual Gay Pride festival was swallowed up by Bob Geldof’s worthier-than-thou Live 8 shenanigans.

It is also worth noting that the decision to bestow upon gays quasi-marriage rights has happened at the very time when real marriage, of the historic, heterosexual sort, is in crisis. There were fewer than 200,000 first marriages in the UK in 2003, down from almost 400,000 in 1970; and even the rise in remarriages has not kept pace with the rise in divorces (5). A cynic might say that the government is looking to gays to solve its national marriage crisis, having exhausted divorcees as a route to bolstering the waning institution. Another cynic might point out that, while the government’s estimate that between 11,000 and 22,000 couples will have ‘got partnered’ by 2010 sounds like a lot (notwithstanding the extraordinary confidence interval), at most this represents one tenth of the heterosexual population still prepared to tie the knot now that marriage is so out of vogue (6).

Much has been made of the forthcoming gay partnership ceremonies, the first of which will be in the UK on 21 December. ‘Over 500 in Brighton alone!’ goes the cry. But a brief look at the figures reveals that demand for civil partnership ceremonies, like the arrangements themselves, should not be overstated. After Brighton and Hove (already known as the UK’s gay Mecca, perhaps shortly to become the gay Vegas), the next hot spot for civil partnerships will be Westminster, in London, where only 140 are scheduled to take place. Manchester, Newcastle, Birmingham, Leeds, and Edinburgh – all cities in which one might expect a thriving gay population – have fewer than 100 civil partnership ceremonies planned (7). If this is the government’s ‘most significant piece of social legislation’, it looks set to have relatively little impact on the ground.

Far from giving gay people the equality they want and deserve, this whole civil partnerships roadshow seems to be a top-down initiative, primarily driven by the authorities’ own needs and desires. When Britain’s equality minister talks about giving ‘legal recognition to relationships which until now were invisible in the eyes of the law’, the government exposes its regulatory impulse again. The one-time reluctance on the part of the state to risk social disorder by appearing to accept non-conventional family relationships has simply been replaced by another form of social control: recognising all lifestyles as valid, the better to regulate them.

So the consultation document on civil partnerships, launched by the government in 2003, purports to be a positive discussion of how best to make civil partnerships into a workable reality – yet is riddled with doubts and distrust about how the individuals who sign a partnership might (hypothetically) abuse the system or each other (see A marriage that dare not speak its name, by Jennie Bristow). Today’s government might be less disturbed by the activities of gay people than were administrations of the past; but today’s government is far more disturbed by the thought of letting anybody, whatever their lifestyle, live beneath the radar of the state. And that, I’m afraid, goes for the governments of Europe, too. It’s not a more tolerant, gay-friendly union we’re seeing here, but one that feels compelled to tick the diversity box as a means to keeping ever-closer tabs on their populations.

In boiling the essence of marriage down to property and pension rights, the civil partnerships for gays strip marriage of its mystique. In refusing to call a civil partnership a marriage, this new law is denuded of any of the progressive properties it might otherwise have. And in hyping up the whole thing beyond any impact it has upon the homosexual population, the civil partnerships scheme is fast becoming a caricature of gay naff.

On 5 December, the day the law came into force, the press made much of the way that retailers are gearing up to target the ‘pink pound’, with one high street supermarket selling cards celebrating ‘Mr and Mr’ and ‘Mrs and Mrs’, and one chainstore chemist flogging tea-towels sporting the legend ‘Darling, Dearest, Queerest’. Well, if equality has been reduced to the mainstreaming of wedding kitsch and getting your hands on half a flat in Brighton, maybe we’re there after all.

Read on:

spiked-issue: Love and sex

(1) ‘Gay weddings’ become law in UK, BBC, 5 December 2005

(2) Same-sex couples to register as civil partners, Financial Times, 5 December 2005

(3) ‘Gay weddings’ become law in UK, BBC, 5 December 2005

(4) Gay marriage around the globe, BBC, 30 June 2005

(5) Social Trends 35, Office for National Statistics

(6) Q&A: Civil partnership, BBC, 5 December 2005

(7) ‘Gay weddings’ become law in UK, BBC, 5 December 2005

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Topics Politics