Earlier this year, Justices in the Supreme Court found that Rebecca Steinfield and Charles Keidan had been discriminated against by virtue of their being prohibited by law from entering in to a civil partnership. Equality campaigners across the UK from the Equal Civil Partnership campaign, Humanists UK, and the Women’s Equality Party have celebrated this decision and continue to agitate for the requisite legislation to be passed through the House of Commons promptly. At their lacklustre conference in Birmingham this week, the Conservatives announced that they would introduce the legislation in order to ’protect the interests of opposite-sex couples’. The campaign itself and the pronouncements by a number of activists, politicians, and public figures are not only problematic but are also incredibly tone-deaf.
Looking back now, it is often assumed that the introduction of the Civil Partnerships Act (2004) was met with universal jubilation within the lesbian and gay communities. This was partly a function of Stonewall’s vocal support for the legislation. It has, also, never been the case. There were then, as now, many lesbian and gay people who opposed civil partnerships on principle. In its own study in 2003, the Labour government conceded that many in the LGBT community saw civil partnership as further entrenching discrimination. It was, and remains, a meretricious form of othering gay couples and devaluing their relationships. One response quoted in the government’s Responses to Civil Partnership: A Legal Framework for the Legal Recognition of Same-Sex Couples expressed disappointment that the Labour government hadn’t been braver and extended full marriage rights to the same-sex couples: ‘It is a matter of regret that the Government has not just changed the legal definition of the word marriage to include same-sex couples…’ The most pertinent argument against civil partnerships has always been that they do very little to reduce the stigma that still attaches itself to gay relationships. By making legal recognition of gay relationships separate and apart from that of heterosexual couples, the Labour Party managed to simultaneously improve rights for gay couples and abet homophobes in asserting the differences between gay and heterosexual relationships (with the implicit suggestion that heterosexual relationships were/are more socially acceptable and valuable).
Aside from the optics of civil partnerships, there are also practical reasons why civil partnerships were opposed by same-sex couples: insurance premiums are higher for those in civil partnerships because those in civil partnerships are considered by insurers as being ‘single’; those in civil partnerships were often forced to out themselves when explaining their marital status to others, particularly in the world of officialdom which was slow to update its standard forms and procedures; it is much more difficult to dissolve a civil partnership than it is a marriage. On this last point, it is incredibly telling that adultery is not grounds for the dissolution of a civil partnership. Surely, there is no other explanation for this other than a lingering belief in archaic and offensive stereotypes about gay people’s inability to maintain monogamous relationships. (** Some of this information comes from Australian Marriage Equality, Recognition of Foreign Marriages Bill 2014, Submission 19, Attachment 3.
As an LGBT person who opposed civil partnerships when they were introduced, I am baffled as to why any couple would electively choose a form of legal recognition that does not offer the full range of legal rights. I suspect that this latest legal action is tied up in the culture wars that permeate political discourse in the US and Western Europe. Identity politics were once seen as the sole preserve of the left; the right seemed almost anxious to avoid discussions of identity for fear of losing face in increasingly liberal times. The election of Donald Trump, the Leaver’s victory in the Brexit campaign, the rise of the far-right, and a backlash against ‘political correctness’ has called almost universally accepted truths into question. It is these culture wars that allow Lindsay Graham to declare that single, white men are victimised in today’s landscape or for Trump to suggest that women are having ‘a really good time’ whilst it is a really ‘scary time’ for boys. It also allows for Theresa May to declare that ‘opposite-sex couples’ need their rights protected. All three arguments are patently risible: 80% of the US Senate is male, despite men being 49.5% of the US population; 94% of the Senate is White despite ethnic minorities accounting for 35% of the US population. The power-structures of US politics allows for the greatest opportunities possible for straight, white men yet Graham would have us believe that it is they who are the biggest ‘victims’ in America’s culture wars. It is equally farcical for May to announce her intention at the Tory conference to protect opposite-sex couples’ rights when there hasn’t been a single piece of legislation ever passed in the UK that negatively discriminates against heterosexual couples. The exclusion of heterosexual couples from civil partnerships was not discrimination against them but acted to further enshrine their privilege in to the legal framework.
There is much in the current marriage laws that are patriarchal and women are right to oppose some of the most egregious examples of misogyny in the entire marriage process. However, instead of fighting for their ‘right’ to access an arrangement that many gay people never wanted, they should fight to change marriage from within. Like gay people did. In July 2013, after decades of struggle, LGBT couples were granted full access to marriage equality. Many brave LGBT activists worked tirelessly, putting themselves at risk, to achieve this. There is nothing which stops heterosexual couples working with the LGBT community to have those elements of gender discrimination removed from the marriage ceremony and process. Instead of arguing that they have somehow been victimised by civil partnerships.