As I baked our Christmas cake last night it occurred to me that it can double, with admirable economy, as the one for our wedding. My other half takes charge of the icing. In previous years it has featured plastic tractors, gladiators and jousting knights, so a pair of plastic grooms between Corinthian columns will be nothing out of the ordinary.
Unless I’m very much mistaken about the human geography between our farmhouse and the Land’s End car park, on 23 December we will become the westernmost registered single-sex couple in England. We jumped at that date because the Penzance registrar handily had a slot before lunch and there will be less risk of being photographed by a reporter from the Cornishman by then. Our families will be down for Christmas anyway, so can be diverted into an extra day of festivities without the whole thing getting out of hand. We’re keeping it small – immediate family, two “best women” as our witnesses, lunch in Mousehole afterwards and a minibus so everyone can drink.
Who are we fooling, though? When is a wedding not a wedding? Like any straight couple, we have to register our desire to be spliced weeks in advance. There is no official ceremony beyond the signing of the register and no official vows must be sworn. The registrars have, rather sweetly, all been on a course and are striving to accommodate the every need or whim of their gay and lesbian clients. We are at liberty to concoct our own vows (no thanks) and to exchange symbolic rings (we will).
It’s most obviously not a wedding in that the Church of England has made it clear that we are not to call in at St Sennen Church in the hope of a blessing (in this respect, same-sex couples of other religions may fare better). My mother, becoming quietly radical in her old age, may seize the moment to bless the union herself, just as she took it upon herself secretly to baptise each of my brother’s babies at her kitchen sink. It’s also not a wedding in that we’ll be spared cringeworthy speeches and tedious e-mails, as well as writing thank-you letters for smoked-glass avocado dishes or witty corn-on-the-cob holders.
So why are we doing it? Once registered, we will have legal rights roughly equivalent to those of any married couple, becoming each other’s next of kin and enjoying tax advantages and inheritance security. (As regards pensions, there remains some catching up to be done.) One of us will have the right to take the other’s name, but I think we’ll pass on that, since we have the same colouring and I get taken for a brother of his enough times as it is.
I, for one, am doing it because I wish to celebrate our love in a way that our families and the law can understand. What to call one’s same-sex partner is a perennial dilemma (“lover”: too confrontational; “boyfriend”: too cutesome; “partner”: ambiguous), so I look forward to being able to refer to “my husband”. He’s a farmer – a husbandman – which makes for some pleasing wordplay. When I dithered about accepting the commission to write this piece, as the wedding was a private matter I wished to keep special, he told me not to be foolish and to remember how much the rings and lunch and minibus and flowers were going to cost: tidy proof that his approach to the big day is less romantic than mine.
So I took a straw poll of the long-established gay couples in my address book. Were they getting spliced, too, I wondered? One pair has raced to be the first gay couple registered in Penzance and is going the whole hog with printed invitations, ceremony, reception and night-long shindig. Another pair was more cautious, craving the legal protection, but warily, because they still risk losing their jobs if exposed as gay. Another pair said they’d lived together for so long that they had nothing to prove about their love and, anyway, had long since established legal protection with the help of solicitors. The fourth person I spoke to, who had lived with his partner since 1988, said he wasn’t sure he wanted his lover to get everything when he died. Four reactions that neatly parallel what you would get from a similar ring around straight couples.
The fifth couple were against gay marriage in a way that took me back to the embittered years when we were marching against Clause 28, when to be gay had never felt more a matter of taking sides in a battle. They didn’t, they said, “want to ape straights”.
In the Nineties I worked with Kevin Elyot on what would have been the BBC’s first gay sitcom. The working title was Adam and Steve, and its core consisted of those mundane elements of life with which any viewer could identify. Far too threatening, apparently, unlike the reassuringly X-rated Queer as Folk, later broadcast by Channel 4. In his 1995 polemic Virtually Normal, Andrew Sullivan argued that the gay community should fight for the right to marry because that was what straight people least wanted gay people to have. Perhaps he was right. Perhaps – for all the avoidance or subversion of wedding traditions – we, like the thousands of other gay couples register-ing their partnerships over the next few weeks, are making a quiet attempt to fade into mundane normality.
Patrick Gale’s latest novel, Friendly Fire, is published by Fourth Estate