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27 June 2018updated 28 Jun 2018 9:36am

The Supreme Court civil partnerships ruling isn’t just about straight couples

The question of civil partnerships is not just about getting straight people the same rights as the queer community.

By Billie Esplen

I would never get married to a man. I have considered, however, marrying another woman. My previous partner and I used to talk about it quite a lot, in fact, establishing lines in the sand such as “I’m not going to wear a dress if you’re wearing a suit”. To do so would have felt like a capitulation to the institution of marriage’s heterosexist history. No: if I was going to have a big gay wedding, it was going to be a big gay fuck-you to all the oppressive traditions usually associated with a wedding. 

The UK Supreme Court has now ruled that heterosexual couples should be able to enter into civil partnerships: an option which is only currently available for same-sex partners. The Civil Partnership Act, brought in 2004, was rightly viewed as an avoidance tactic on the part of the government. Many LGBT+ people viewed it as holding less emotional and societal weight, and therefore being far inferior to marriage equality: something which was not conceded until 2014.

The ruling is the result of a legal battle which has been taking place since the couple Rebecca Steinfeld and Charles Keidan tried to enter into a civil partnership at their local registry office in October 2014. Steinfeld and Keidan’s argument was that the government’s refusal to grant them the partnership was incompatible with Article 14 of the European Convention of Human Rights: in short, that they were being discriminated against. 

This may seem a little far-fetched. The point has been made that “straight couples” have only been campaigning for the right to civil partnerships since same-sex couples were granted the right to marry. Announcing his decision this morning, Lord Kerr said that parliament “consciously decided” not to abolish same-sex civil partnerships or extend them to different-sex couples in 2014, despite this being “recognised at the time” to be unequal.

The decision has also, by coincidence, come during Pride month, and has provoked some indignation from the LGBT+ community. A spokesperson from Pride in London, which organises the capital’s festival, said it supported the decision but that “there is still work to be done. Let’s hope that those who campaigned for this stand shoulder to shoulder with LGBT+ people who are fighting for [marriage] equality in Northern Ireland.”

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However, while the language of this individual legal battle has been necessarily centred around equality, the question of civil partnerships more broadly is not just about getting straight people the same rights as the queer community. It is also a question of developing a system which offers all couples the opportunity to enter into a partnership recognised by the law yet not weighed down by sexist and heteronormative traditions and history. Even if not carried out in a religious institution, marriage and marriage ceremonies are still suffused with outdated terminology and assumptions. 

Sarah Wells, 30, from Cambridge, told the New Statesman that she and her partner had been struggling with the idea of marriage for years because neither of liked the “historical baggage of marriage”, but that they were also worried about not having the same legal protection as a married couple, despite living together for 10 years. “This gives us a way to get that legal protection, as well as having a way to commemorate our love without having to get married and be ‘husband and wife’,” she says of civil partnerships. “We always refer to ourselves as ‘partners’ because that’s what we are: equals.”

If the government were to legalise mixed-sex civil partnerships, it would mean a lot for those who see marriage first and foremost as part of continued institutionalised sexism in the UK. The Women’s Equality Party advocate the government “use this decision to rethink whether marriage, or indeed civil partnerships, are an appropriate way to distribute tax breaks and automatic legal protections”. Marriage fails, it says, “to value family set-ups that do not conform to conservative values – including roughly two million single parent families, most of whom are headed by women”. The party has also called for the Marriage Allowance (an annual tax break of £238 to married couples) to be scrapped in favour of something which also benefits partners who are simply cohabiting.

The debate has also prompted questions about whether the institutions governing legal partnerships should be linked to organised religion at all. Stephen Evans, chief executive of the National Secular Society argues that today’s news “should prompt a wide-ranging review of the marriage laws in England and Wales,” which are, in his view, “far too complex […] marriage should be regulated on a purely civil basis and marriages should be registered by state-regulated registrars”.

Indeed, the Supreme Court’s ruling has a much wider-ranging relevance than simply kickstarting the legalisation of mixed-sex civil partnerships. Crucially, I have not been terming these civil partnerships “straight”. Because this is not just a question of heterosexual unions, but in fact all mixed-sex couples, which can of course constitute either one or two queer people in a straight-passing relationship. And these couples may have even more reason than heterosexual couples to object to the historically oppressive and traditionalist institution of marriage.

Today we are not simply dealing with questions of “straight” and “gay” marriage, but with debates about human partnership in general, and what exactly partnership – monogamous or otherwise – means. Someone’s “significant other” may indeed not even be a romantic or sexual partner, as is the case with those who identify as asexual or aromantic. If the wonderfully increasing number of letters in the LGBTQQIAAP spectrum, as well as the growth in gender-queer identification, tells us anything, it is that people are feeling more and more able to create their own definitions: definitions which stem from feelings rather than pre-existing structures or societal expectations. The spectrum is just that. People, especially the generation of those under 24 (over half of whom now identify as non-straight, according to a recent YouGov survey) are increasingly aware of, and less willing to tolerate, the powers held by oppressive structures. 

I said I would never get married to a man, and I stand by that. It would feel much too much like a surrender to traditional ideals. I wouldn’t want to have a man “put a ring on it” or call me his wife. I wouldn’t want to have to be continually asked if I was going to change my name. And I would clearly be horrified if I had to do this in order to access legal rights and protections. Falling in love with someone who happened to be a man should not inhibit my rights as a queer woman to express disdain for, and exist outside of, existing oppressive structures.

When asked in 2013 about granting mixed-sex couples the right to civil partnerships, David Cameron said he thought it would “weaken” the institution of marriage in the UK. This discourse of strength and weakness is illuminating, as a reference to the power held by our country’s conservative institutions. This ruling is almost as important for queer couples as it is for straight ones. Not only does it go further in removing the hetero-boundaries surrounding marriage, but also the boundaries which hamper popular conceptions of love, sex and relationships in our society. Equal marriage rights, whilst crucial to attain, are in many ways an interim measure as we work towards a society in which no decision we make about our own lives can be deemed as “other” or shocking either by society or those governing us. There are plenty of fights left in the UK, starting with Northern Ireland, where same sex couples still cannot marry.

So, let us celebrate civil partnerships, while keeping in mind the longer-term goal. Admission into a pre-existing system is not the highest form of radical acceptance.

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