Do Civil Partnerships Have a Future?

By Hannah Bacon

December marked the 10th anniversary of the introduction of civil partnerships in England and Wales. But do they have a future? Can we even tell after such a short time?

Current legal recognition for relationships in the UK is a bit of a muddle. The Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013 was created separately to existing marriage legislation, rather than simply amending existing marriage law to make it gender neutral. Certain grounds for divorce in marriage law, such as ‘suffering from a venereal disease in a communicable form’ and adultery, are not present in civil partnership law. Plus, changes to new marriage certificates are being proposed in an effort to include mothers’ names in addition to fathers’, something that civil partnerships included right from the outset.

Despite campaigns led by Rebecca Steinfeld and Charles Keidan, and the Peter Tatchell Foundation, there remains strong opposition to giving couples more choice. The Prime Minister opposes opening up civil partnerships to different-gender couples because of concerns about ‘undermining the sanctity of marriage’, an uncomfortably familiar phrase that does not promise equal treatment and respect for choice. Equality is precisely the reason why many couples wish to have the option of committing to each other without being married. Holly Baxter is put off by a ‘long history of women-as-chattel’ and considers that the ‘Labour [government]…accidentally made something genuinely worth having.’

A not very widely publicised consultation was undertaken by the coalition government in 2014, the results of which were inconclusive: ‘Given the lack of consensus on the way forward for civil partnership, the Government will not be making any changes.’ While it makes sense not to charge ahead with changes until they have been thought through properly, the reluctance to get around the table again to try to find a solution sends a glaring message.

This message seems to be that civil partnerships were never intended to be a proper equivalent to marriage in the first place. The report shows that 76% of respondents were against opening up the option of civil partnerships to different-gender couples, many of whom stated that their reason was tied to civil partnerships being inferior to marriage. As part of the consultation, Christian Concern expressed a worry about ‘greater instability within families’ if fewer different-gender couples opt for marriage. Perhaps it is worth questioning whether it is realistic or desirable to expect one size to fit all.

Encouragement to convert civil partnerships into marriage was relatively forthcoming, at the end of 2014, with some even (tellingly) referring to it as an “upgrade”. If we consider the language used when this is discussed, mention of ‘full marriage’ crops up quite a lot, both in the media and in everyday conversation, suggesting that even after a number of years of trying, a civil partnership just does not carry the same weight. Friends of mine were excited to learn in 2014 that I could now be ‘fully married’ if I wanted to, not because they would show a difference in respect for my relationship, but because it is very deeply ingrained idea that it is best to be married.

It is essential to remember, however, that many couples rejoiced at the opportunity to “convert”, particularly for those who grew up during a time where homosexuality was illegal. For Percy Steven and Roger Lockyer, being declared “husband and husband” was an emotional moment that they never expected to come, describing it as ‘really rather lovely’ to be ‘married at last’. Despite little change in practical legal status, emotional status is perhaps even more important, ‘To me, it feels like reaching the top.’ Like it or not, marriage does still seem to be the “gold standard”, and the power of social approval cannot be underestimated.

As a gay 15 year old, hearing that the UK considered my future potential relationships to mean something, lessened a fear of being misunderstood or treated badly. I remember listening to the radio on the way to school in winter 2005, and hearing the announcement that same-gender relationships were soon to be legally recognised. It gave me confidence. It gave me a starting point for beginning to be honest about who I was. The white dress did not matter, but the possibility that society thought I was okay definitely did. The idea that maybe, just maybe, I would be treated the same as everyone else, lifted a significant weight from me.

Now 10 years later, I am not as fussed about being like everyone else. I now strongly believe in not needing to be the same in order to be equal, and have learned to go my own way, even if it does not comply with what is expected of me. But it can take a long time to get to that point, and I do not believe that anyone truly does not care what others think of them.

Love comes in all shapes and sizes. Making fewer judgements about how others’ relationships should be conducted is the way to go, and perhaps civil partnerships have the ability to offer us this in a way that traditional marriage does not. Last year, a Conservative peer argued for siblings to be able to ‘ease the burden of inheritance tax’ by entering into civil partnerships. Opposition to his beliefs included the statement that ‘civil partnerships are the equivalent of a marriage: a loving union.’ One can see where this idea came from. The initial attempt to sell the idea of civil partnerships to same-gender couples was based on making it as similar to marriage as possible without having to call it marriage.

But what if we decided to apply the term ‘loving union’ more widely? Catherine and Ginda Utley are two sisters who have co-parented 22-year-old Livvy for her whole life, and simply wish for more security for their committed family. This is unobtainable for them because of the fact that siblings cannot form legal partnerships. Marriage is perhaps more difficult to change, given that it is much older and more tied with tradition in people’s minds. Opening up civil partnerships, however, could be a fabulous opportunity to recognise the many different ways in which people form loving and committed connections outside of romantic and sexual relationships.

Looking deeper into the nuances of human interaction can encourage us to question why we will formally recognise some relationships but not others. Queerplatonic relationships, for example, question why romantic and/or sexual relationships must always be prioritised over others, and attempt to create a space for individuals to determine their commitments and feelings for themselves. Some are prone to asking, “When will it stop?” but perhaps the question should be, “Should it stop?” Why not celebrate the wonderful diversity of human relationships in its entirety, and allow people to define their lives on their own terms?

This is also potentially an argument for getting rid of the need for state recognition of relationships altogether. Being legally bound to someone should not be needed for a human connection to be considered legitimate in the first place. Some are totally against entering into any legal partnership, due to beliefs about its outdatedness and irrelevance in today’s society. In an ideal world, perhaps, we would not need to prove the acceptability of our feelings for one another. Further, we would not require legal formalities for things like hospital visits and inheritance, but rather a culture of trust would be present, with no need to protect oneself. Further still, someone choosing to live a single life would not be penalised. In short, there would be respect afforded to a wider variety of people and lives.

Having said that, this is currently not the world we live in, and so it arguably remains very necessary for folks to be able to clearly state the nature of a relationship. An example of this is the fact that some couples wish to be in a secure position internationally. This could be due to factors such as: differing nationalities, deciding to relocate, or travelling together. So even if a couple feels that a civil partnership more closely matches their values concerning gender equality and modernity, they may still choose to enter into a marriage because of the universal recognition and respect afforded to that status.

Despite the fact that most countries in the world would not officially recognise two people of the same gender as married, the simplicity of phrases such as, “We are married,” or “She is my wife,” holds much power. The Irish campaign for marriage equality puts it as, ‘The word itself is a fundamental protection, conveying clearly that you and your life partner love each other…everyone understands that.’

Respecting individuals’ wishes in terms of relationships is vitally important, and arguably what this is all about. Formalising relationships remains significant for many, both in a legal and emotional sense. We just need to put some work into broadening our definition of what a “relationship” is, and perhaps we should keep civil partnerships around for another 10 years to see what else they can do for us.

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