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Liverpool courts pink pound as new gay wedding capital

LIVERPOOL followed Manchester and Newcastle in pursuit of the "pink pound" yesterday by styling itself as the leading British city for gay weddings.

The city, one of only four in the country that waives a local residency requirement for gay weddings, became the first to make a gay couple the focus of its civil ceremony promotional material by featuring Shaun and Mark Johnson on the cover of its main brochure.

Liverpool has already had 55 same-sex "weddings" - 24 male and 31 female - and has attracted couples from as afield as London, Cardiff and Jamaica as it pursues a bigger share of a growing market. The number of weddings has risen quickly since the Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, sanctioned Britain's first, four years ago - and the 15 local authorities that provide such a service have now staged almost 1,000 gay weddings between them.

Liverpool's aim to be the second city, after London, to host gay weddings was thwarted by municipal disagreement on the issue in 2001. The council's initial decision not to debate a local Liberal Democrat proposal to introduce gay weddings led the gay rights campaigner Peter Tatchell to warn that the city risked projecting a "hardline homophobic" image. As a result, it trailed behind both Brighton and Manchester and did not stage its first gay wedding until August 2002.

But only three other places - Swansea, Leeds and Richmond upon Thames - waive residency requirements, which has helped Liverpool quickly consolidate its credentials. "We've picked up a lot from Cheshire, which do not do them and are terribly against the idea," said Janet Taubman, superintendent registrar and partnership register manager in Liverpool.

The use of Shaun and Mark (who by chance share the same surname) on literature telling couples how to take part in the civil ceremony is another statement of intent. "There is no reason why they should not appear on the cover," Ms Taubman said. "By promoting our services in this way we hope that more gays will be encouraged to come forward to take part in commitment ceremonies."

The growth of the gay wedding industry has already spawned Pink Weddings, a company which has organised more than 100 ceremonies for gay and lesbian couples unable to get what they need from mainstream wedding planners. This includes invitations and thank-you cards that refer to partnership ceremonies rather than weddings and cake tops with two men or two women, rather than bride and groom.

The number - and variety - of venues has also risen. Last year, Pink Weddings reached an agreement with the National Trust to host ceremonies at five of its historic buildings.

Liverpool, which charges pounds 140 for each service, expects a large increase in its gay business after the Civil Partnership Bill, detailed in the Queen's Speech, becomes law. Until the law reaches the statute book, a gay ceremony carries no legal authority and is only a public statement of commitment.