THE BLOG

Inequality Remains: Why Exclude Straight Couples From Civil Partnerships?

29/04/2014 12:44 BST | Updated 29/06/2014 10:59 BST

On March 29, the steps of Islington Town Hall saw the culmination of decades of campaigning. The UK's first same-sex wedding just after midnight marked a key turning point in the battle for LGBT equality.

But, as is so often the case, the winning of one battle paved the way for another: that of the status of civil partnerships. Since March 29 same-sex couples have been able to opt for either a marriage or a civil partnership, leaving same-sex couples behind with only the patriarchal figure of marriage for company.

Rather than laying their rainbow flags aside to celebrate this smorgasbord of potential legal unions, LGBT campaigners put their energy into fighting this legal inequality. For the first time, they have found themselves campaigning for the rights of opposite-sex couples. How the tables have turned.

What, then, is to become of civil partnerships? Does the same-sex marriage legislation leave civil partnerships destined to the graveyard of the noughties, left to rot alongside Big Brother and hipster jeans? Or might they be opened up to couples of any sex and allowed to flourish or fail, depending on the choices of the great British public?

Well, no one knows yet. The government's consultation on the future of civil partnerships closed on April 17, and has three possible outcomes.The legal status of civil partnerships could be abolished, and existing civil partnerships recognised as marriages. Or the government could retain pre-existing partnerships, but register no more. Finally, and by far the most sensible option, is that civil partnerships could be extended to opposite-sex couples, giving any couple the choice between a marriage and a civil partnership.

Yet just last week it was reported that David Cameron opposes this move. An article in The Sunday Times stated: 'Cameron believes that allowing civil partnerships for heterosexuals would undermine the sanctity of marriage and alienate many traditional Tory voters.'

To understand the argument in favour of expanding civil partnerships is to understand that many same-sex couples did not solely choose to enter into a civil partnership because they were excluded from marriages.

Many couples want to recognise their relationship - with all the benefits that accompany a legal union - but object to the traditions that accompany marriage. As fourth-wave feminism shows no signs of abating, a union which explicitly involves the passing of a woman from one man to another seems increasingly archaic. Civil partnerships are not a marriage 'downgrade'; they are a vital institution for many couples who want to recognise their relationship without having to deal with the myriad problematic aspects of marriage.

The argument cited against expanding civil partnerships is that there is no demand amongst opposite-sex couples for an alternative to marriage. Ignoring the lack of evidence to support this claim, the pertinent matter of equality remains. Just because the majority of men don't often buy false eyelashes, does this mean they should be banned from doing so? Asking whether opposite-sex couples should be excluded from civil partnerships is simply to ask whether you believe in fair and equal rights for all.

Key figures in the LGBT rights movement reinforce this view of civil partnerships. Peter Tatchell has said: "Over time I would expect more and more heterosexual couples to choose a civil partnership over a marriage." A glance at our European neighbours seems to prove him right. In the Netherlands (where civil partnerships have been open to couples of any sex since 1998), two thirds of them are taken up by male-female couples.

Furthermore, the idea that the UK government might be able to rule against the inclusion of opposite-sex couples in civil partnerships seems legally unfeasible. In November 2013, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that the Greek civil union - solely for heterosexual couples - violated European human rights law. Given this precedent, it is difficult to see how the exclusion of opposite-sex couples from UK civil partnerships can continue.

David Cameron should not see the expansion of civil partnerships as a threat, but as a positive reinforcement of his perennial harping about the numerous benefits of marriage. Tatchell's letter to Helen Grant MP, Minister for Sport, Tourism & Equalities, stated: 'Both civil marriages and civil partnerships embody the same core values of love, commitment, loyalty and stability.'

This government overturned a great inequality for LGBT people with the Marriage (Same-Sex Couples) Act. Now it must do the same for straight couples.