Yesterday’s edition of Radio 4 show Women’s Hour looked at the still controversial topic of civil partnerships. When these were first introduced ten years ago, they were controversial amongst the prejudiced, who believed same sex relationships deserved no legal recognition. But time and society have moved on, and it is now almost a year since the UK took a step further forward and legalised gay marriage. Civil partnerships are still controversial, however, but for a very different reason.
Many same sex couples in civil partnerships are now awaiting the introduction of legislation which will allow them to convert their unions into marriages – with varying degrees of patience. Many – perhaps the majority – will take advantage of this option when it arrives. We will have to wait and see just how many. Meanwhile, civil partnerships remain – at least for now – on the statute books, an alternative to marriage but one open, of course, to same sex couples only.
There are two obvious solutions to this curious anomaly: abolish civil partnerships altogether or open the option to heterosexual couples as well.
The latter option has many adherents – from the perhaps unexpected figure of Peter Tatchell, well known for his campaigning on gay rights, right through to the Joint Committee on Human Rights. MPs on this committee declared in June last year that they were “not convinced” by arguments against opening the civil partnership option to all.
The Woman’s Hour slot asked the Peter Tatchell question: do this fact that civil partnerships are only open to same sex couples represent discrimination against heterosexual couples? Speaking on the topic back in December 2012, the veteran campaigner said the situation represented “legal inequality and discrimination.”
“I support straight equality,” he declared.
On the face of things, his stance seems reasonable. Straight couples have fewer options – that cannot be fair, can it?
But look a little deeper and it becomes clear that the situation isn’t quite so black and white. Heterosexual couples actually already have two forms of marriage open to them: civil marriage and religious marriage. Civil marriage in a registry office is, however it may be dressed up, essentially a legal and administrative transaction, and the dividing line between civil marriage and civil partnership is – as the names suggest – quite hazy.
Personally I think civil partnerships are fast approaching their sell-by date. The concept was a half-way house, a way of giving same sex couples the same rights as the married without actually labelling the union a ‘marriage’. They were a fudge, in other words. Now society has moved on and I am not convinced that the legal concept of the civil partnership has any further function or point.
If straight couples want a civil marriage they can have one. And if gay couples went to get married, they can do so. Civil partnerships are complications that are simply no longer necessary.
The edition of Women’s Hour is currently available for listening here.