Peter Tatchell proposes a Civil Commitment Pact

Why should the new civil partnerships be reserved for those in love or having sex?

The same-sex civil partnership scheme - announced by the equalities minister, Jacqui Smith - will remedy many of the injustices faced by lesbian and gay couples. But the scheme is heterophobic and homophobic. It is not available to unmarried heterosexuals and is a second-best version of marriage. Instead of marriage-lite for same-sex lovers, the government should have taken the opportunity to create a legal framework of partnership recognition that applied to gays and straights and which remedied the deficiencies of marriage law.

Any two people who share a close, deep bond ought to be eligible for reciprocal legal rights. Instead of restricting such rights to people in a sexual relationship, they should be extended to cover all relations based on mutual care and commitment. Supportive, enduring relationships - whether between lovers or friends - are good for the people involved and have a social benefit. They enhance a person's well-being and offer support in times of need. This tends to diminish dependence on the state. It is in society's interest to encourage and reward such relationships.

I propose a Civil Commitment Pact that would allow people to nominate as next-of-kin and beneficiary any "significant other" in their life. This could be a lover, but it could also be a sister, carer, nephew or best friend. Many non-sexual friendships are as sincere, loyal and enriching as relations between people in love. With one in two marriages ending in divorce, and a quarter of households comprising single people, friends play an increasingly important role in people's lives. It is wrong to discriminate against friends who have a strong bond just because they are not married and do not have sex.

Any new partnership legislation should allow people to select from a menu of rights and responsibilities and devise tailor-made partnership agreements. We see a huge variety of relationships and lifestyles. There are couples who live together, and those who live apart. Some share their finances; others maintain financial independence. The law should reflect and support these diverse relationship choices. The one-size-fits-all model - epitomised by marriage - is no longer appropriate.

My model would give a choice of legal rights to lovers and close friends. It would benefit everyone in a relationship of care and support, without discrimination.

How about it, Jacqui Smith?

Peter Tatchell is Director of the Peter Tatchell Foundation, which campaigns for human rights the UK and worldwide: His personal biography can be viewed here:

This article appears in the 07 July 2003 issue of the New Statesman, 661 new crimes - and counting