In the last few weeks the debate over the introduction of marriage for same-sex couples in the UK has started to heat up again. In September 2011, the government stated that it would be introducing same-sex marriage. Following recent public statements arguing against this decision, I have decided to break from the light-hearted nature of the previous couple of posts and enter into a serious discussion of this issue.
Today’s post, therefore, is on the subject of: same-sex marriage and civil partnerships – is there a difference, and does it matter? After all, don’t civil partnerships convey the same rights as marriage?
Well, it turns out there is a difference, and it does matter. Here’s why…
In 2005, the Civil Partnership Act took effect in the UK. This law introduced civil partnerships, which grant same-sex couples many of the same rights and responsibilities that are granted to married couples. This was a huge step forward for equality in this country.
However, in my opinion, and that of many others, this law didn’t quite go so far as to grant full equality. It specifically states that civil partnerships should not be referred to as marriage; they are something completely separate. It therefore implies that same-sex relationships are not equivalent to opposite-sex ones.
“… relegating gay men and lesbians to ‘domestic partnerships’ is to inflict upon them badges of inferiority that forever stigmatize their loving relationships as different, separate, unequal, and less worthy—something akin to a commercial venture, not a loving union.”
Given the choice between ‘getting married’ and ‘entering into a civil partnership’, I’d pick marriage. It’s so much easier to say “I’m married”. “I’m in a civil partnership” sounds awkward and clumsy. The latter phrase also immediately identifies a person as gay or lesbian. I’ve seen forms where, under ‘Marital status’, there are separate tick boxes for ‘Married’ and ‘Civil partner’. Individuals should not be forced to disclose their sexual orientation if they don’t need to.
Continuing the theme of semantics, I also prefer the clear, unambiguous terms ‘husband’ and ‘wife’ to ‘partner’. There are many who may disagree with me, but I think the phrase “This is my partner” makes you sound like a pair of detectives in some US cop show, or two people who have opened a shop together. In contrast, saying “This is my husband”, or “This is my wife”, immediately makes it clear to anyone exactly what that person’s relationship is to you.
Language is not the only issue, though. If marriage can currently only be between a man and a woman, and civil partnerships are only open to same-sex couples, what happens if one half of the couple is transgendered and wishes to obtain a gender recognition certificate1? The marriage/civil partnership would have to be dissolved, regardless of the couple’s wishes. All pension and financial benefits would be lost, and if they choose to enter into a new civil partnership/marriage, they’d have to start accruing those benefits again, from scratch. Thus the current arrangement discriminates against transgendered individuals and their partners, as well as gay men, lesbians and bisexuals.
On the subject of benefits, in the event of the death of one member of a married couple, the spouse is legally entitled to any survivor benefits provided by their husband or wife’s pension. While doing the research for this post, I was surprised to learn that the Civil Partnership Act makes no such guarantees for civil partners. Instead it is left at the discretion of the pension trustees. Admittedly, most pension trustees treat a surviving civil partner the same as a surviving spouse, but there’s no legal requirement for them to do so.
Finally, there’s the international issue. In countries with equal marriage or civil partnerships, what rights does a UK civil partnership convey? The answer is that it varies between countries. Some countries recognise it as equivalent to marriage. Some recognise it as something less.
Then there are the same-sex couples that get married overseas and later return to the UK. Rather than having their marriage continue to be recognised as such, as would be the case for a straight couple, they are instead treated as having entered into a civil partnership.
I hope, by now, it is clear that marriage and civil partnerships are not the same, and are not truly equal. Having a completely separate institution for same-sex couples actually grants special rights, not equal rights, and this not fair for LGBT or straight people.
Things are changing, though. Last week the government launched a public consultation to investigate how (not if) it should make civil marriage available to same-sex couples. The deputy prime minister has pledged that full civil marriage equality will be introduced before the next general election in 2015.
Sadly, though, any attempt at progress tends to rile those who prefer the status quo. In this case it’s the Catholic Church (unsurprisingly), and the Coalition for Marriage (C4M), as well as a few MPs and MEPs. In my next post I will examine the statements made by the opponents of same-sex marriage, and will attempt to point out the flaws in their arguments.
In the meantime, I’d like to draw your attention to the online petition set up by the Coalition for Equal Marriage. This was set up in response to the Coalition for Marriage’s petition. Unlike C4M, they have received no funding and didn’t have a 175,000 strong mailing list to start out from. At the time of writing, they have accumulated 34,390 signatures, and a wonderfully diverse list of supporting organisations. In addition to the LGBT charities you might expect, this list includes organisations representing lawyers, humanists, secularists, Christians and Jews.
I hope that I have been able to demonstrate that equal marriage is an important issue, and that civil partnerships, while better than nothing, aren’t enough to convey full equality. I understand that this may not be something that affects you directly, but there’s a good chance that it affects someone you know: a family member, friend, co-worker. LGBT couples are no different from straight couples, and as such deserve to be treated the same.
Please show your support for same-sex marriage and sign the petition at www.c4em.org.uk, or even better, make your views known by taking part in the government’s public consultation (closing date: 14 June 2012).
1 A gender recognition certificate is essentially a replacement birth certificate. This is required for a person’s new gender to be legally recognised when applying for a new passport, for example.↩