Thursday, December 21, 2006
You can't have one without the other...?
It's a special anniversary in the UK today - exactly a year since the Civil Partnership Act came into force, and lesbian and gay couples could get hitched. Lots of them have, too - 15,672 up till the end of September. Many congratulations to those - like Elton John and David Furnish - whose first anniversary it is today.
I think it's fair to say that the move has been wholly popular. No mainstream political party has uttered so much as a squeak of disapproval in recent years. When Elton John and David Furnish got married, even the notoriously homophobic Sun newspaper was celebratory in its reports and the streets of Windsor were thronged with people wanting to wish them well.
Even the gay couple in the Archers (an extremely popular BBC radio soap set in a middle-England farming community) - Ian and Adam - got married without a huge amount of disapproval. Their cross and annoying fathers came round, sort of, and the only person who expressed overt homophobia was given short shrift.
The idea seems to be that to not allow stable gay couples equal rights in terms of inheritance tax, pension rights, next-of-kin arrangements and so forth is against human rights. Which it is.
Nevertheless, the media is looking for the downside, in particular gay couples who are now getting divorced. Darryl Bullock and Mark Godfrey, one of the first couples to get hitched last year, have split up but are delaying their divorce, not wanting to go down in history for being the first to do so.
But civil partnership isn't exactly the same as marriage, something that's both good (the history of women being owned by men, for instance) and bad (not the same symbolism or gravitas). One of the main reasons for not calling them "weddings" or "marriage" is to appease people or institutions whose religion tells them that marriage is between a man and a woman only - and mainly for the purpose of having children.
There is also a whole rubbish-heap full of nefarious doings in the notion of "marriage". The historic idea of a woman being owned by one man (her father) and passed to another (her husband) - which is still overt in many parts of the world and persists everywhere in the way that most women change their names. The idea of penetrative sex defining marriage: you have to have sex or the marriage can be annulled. I don't know if that's true everywhere, but certainly in the UK it is. You must not have sex with anyone else and you can divorce on the grounds of adultery. Presumably all that's to do with procreation and the need to know who is the father of a particular child. Then there's also the symbolism of two complementary (male and female) beings becoming one - the unit, the couple, headed by him. And Him - God. In civil partnerships, whether or not you are actually having sex is irrelevant.
Love and marriage
The UK is by no means alone in legally recognising some kind of gay marriage or partnership: the Netherlands, Belgium, Spain, Canada and South Africa (the first being celebrated on 1st December this year) all have same-sex marriage. In many places around the world - mainly Europe, but also parts of Australia, Mexico, Argentina, Brazil and others - at least some form of civil union is permitted.
In the US - from where I am frequently sent petitions to sign and organisations to join on this subject - the situation is totally different. There, 26 states have constitutional amendments barring the recognition of same-sex marriages; by contrast, four have legal unions that sound similar to civil partnerships; three recognise unions offering some rights. Only Massachusetts currently recognises gay marriage.
The majority of readers of this blog are Stateside themselves, and I extend my good wishes to them. I don't need to tell them that they have a huge fight on their hands. As an American ex-pat friend said to me recently, "Anyone who lives in the US and doesn't see the profound level of homophobia there is in a state of deep denial". And he used to live in California!
It also seems pertinent to me that the US has higher rates of heterosexual marriage than do most countries in Europe - so not being allowed it marginalises gay people even further.
Go together like a horse and carriage
Personally, I am not married and never have been, although my current relationship - with a man - is now 11.5 years and counting. The idea of changing my name to Mrs Husband and being a subservient appendage used to make me feel faint; there was also the idea that you were selling out, giving in to convention. Not to mention building a great big dividing line between you on one side and the queers on the other. I don't feel either of these so much now, but I'm still not rushing to any register office. I don't think I would if my partner was female, either.
My gay friends in general seem to agree with me; none has tied the knot yet. Like me, they are likely to think that the legal changes in the UK are more to do with the government's agenda: everyone has to be part of Labour's "hard-working families" - gay people as much as anyone. There is plenty of money being made out of "pink weddings" too. Just beware if you are poor (cuts in benefits for same-sex couples to bring them in line with straight ones) or you don't want to couple up with someone. People who don't want stable monogamous relationships, or want to partner with more than one person, or don't have a sexual partner at all, are simply left out. Of course, this has a big impact on those very many bisexuals who believe in polyamory: what are they do to? Then, there is the - to me - very compelling idea that this type of legal partnership should not be confined to people who are in romantic couples. What about two friends, or two siblings? Why shouldn't they gain those legal and financial rights?
Still, whichever way you look at it, having the possibility of civil partnership is a huge, step-change type improvement to not having it.
I will be going to my first civil partnership celebration in January, for a couple who have been together for 25 years. Their stated reasons for doing it are practical, rather than romantic, although I think that there is something very romantic about loving someone for such a long time. It seems so unlikely, so against the odds. But maybe I am just an old cynic.
Many gay people don't agree though: they want to have a ceremony just like their straight counterparts. And that is truly progressive, I think: to see that lesbians and gay men, just like heterosexuals, can be radical, or conventional; or good, bad, indifferent; rich or poor; interesting or ordinary. That actually, sexuality should have nothing to do with whether anyone is accepted into society or not. We have taken a few steps here. But there are very many still to go.