A few years ago, Graham Norton was asked his views on the desirability of gay marriage. "Why would I want to do that?" he replied. "I thought the whole point of being gay was to avoid doing what everyone else did." A couple of weeks ago, Little Britain's Matt Lucas announced to a fairly nonplussed Kirsty Young on Desert Island Discs that, in the wake of Elton John and David Furnish, he was about to be the next-highest-profile gay groom in the land, with his imminent wedding to his long-term partner, Kevin McGee.
It's been a year since the Civil Partnership Act 2004 came in to force (on 19 December in Northern Ireland, 20 December in Scotland and 21 December in England and Wales), giving gay and lesbian couples the same rights as their straight counterparts to "marry" (officially to "affirm their union"), to become their partner's next-of-kin, to gain inheritance and pension rights, to divorce ("experience dissolution"). And it seems the middle-England horses have remained resolutely unfrightened.
Civil partnerships have quickly and seamlessly become a feature of British national life. The statistics are compelling: more than 15,500 couples registered civil partnerships in the period from last December to September this year, suggesting that government predictions of 22,000 partnerships by 2010 are a huge underestimate. But perhaps more significant is that among the 15,500 pledging their union were a cabinet member - Ben Bradshaw, the Fisheries minister - and among those planning to tie the knot are Adam and Ian from The Archers, which, lest we forget, is "an everyday story of country folk".
Ambridge's Wedding of the Year takes place this week. Even Graham Norton has been won over, to an extent ("I'd consider marriage under the right circumstances... but I just can't imagine those circumstances").
"A gay wedding on The Archers," marvels Adam Mattera, editor of the gay lifestyle magazine Attitude, which carried Elton and David's only "official wedding interview". (Elton: "I think the fact of gay men just being able to express commitment is a very important issue".)
"If you'd told me in my teens that gay marriage would become a reality in the not-too-distant future, I wouldn't have believed a word of it," continues Mattera. "In the 1980s it was all Thatcher, Clause 28, and doom-laden Aids warnings on TV; one step forward and two steps back. I think the whole civil partnerships thing has been quietly momentous. And it's not just about the legal benefits; it's about a fundamental change in basic human rights."
The trend analyst and social commentator Peter York says, "Civil partnerships have reinvigorated the whole notion of marriage. As an institution, it was getting a bit ragged in this country, wasn't it? Most people weren't doing it, or were failing at it. Now, for a whole bunch of people to embrace it in this way - well, no wonder the conservative lobby are rather stymied. It's like the embourgeoisement of the gay outlaws - they're coming in from the cold and taking their place at the table."
As revolutions go, this one's erred on the Velvet rather than Russian side, though some residual unease is proving rather dogged. Brian, Adam's stepfather in The Archers, is threatening in huff-puff style not to attend the ceremony and Ian's father has refused to go. A a fifth of listeners think same-sex marriage an "inappropriate" topic for the show, according to a poll for the programme's website.
A geographical breakdown of the civil partnership figures shows a hefty South-east bias, London hosting a quarter of the UK total, while only 3 per cent have taken place in Wales and 6 per cent in Scotland. Three times as many male partnerships were formed as female, Yorkshire and the Humber lead the way in lesbian unions. The average age of male partners dropped over the first nine months of the new law, with those aged 50 or over falling from half at first - the initial "gay grey wave" of long-term partners - to one in four by September.
Does a close reading of the partnership phenomenon make it less radical and more marginal than it first appears? Not according to Peter York: "Of course, it'll be all metro-bongo at the beginning" he says, "simply because that's where most same-sex couples live and work. But I think it will roll out quite painlessly. After all, there are rather more pressing issues for people to worry about. Of course, this is a red-button right-wing evangelist issue in the States. But we are not Americans.
"There's the obligatory chorus of disapproval from certain red-top columnists here, but I think they're seriously trailing behind their readerships on this. It's rather funny that the language of this legislation - civil partnership, dissolution, etc - is couched in this bland, innocuous civil service-ese, presumably to avoid alarming stockbrokers or WI groups in Shropshire. But if any of those people get invited to one, they have no hesitation in calling it a 'gay wedding'. And they say it with a certain amount of thrilled titillation, like they're taking a toke on a joint or having a sherry at 11 in the morning."
Some of the most vociferous opposition to civil partnerships has not issued from behind leylandii-screened suburban semis, but, rather, from the basement bars and outré clubs of Radical Queer Chic, where they represent the assimilation and conformity that Norton once disdained. Meanwhile, groups such as OutRage! and the Queer Youth Alliance are campaigning for the legalisation of bona fide marriage for same-sex couples.
"No one's pretending the legislation we've got is perfect," says Mattera. "And some will choose a different path entirely. That's their right. But for the first time, same-sex partnerships have been recognised in law, and that's a real step forward. The genie's out of the bottle. So bring on the brides and grooms."
Peter York concurs. "I predict a rising tide of this new form of embourgeoisement," he says, "to the point where gay weddings will become as white-bread mundane as their straight counterparts. And that will be the great, barricade-free victory. Do I think they add to the gaiety of the nation? Actually, I think they add to the decency of the nation. And that, in the end, is far more important."
Percy and Roger: 'We're a couple, more than we are a gay couple' We're a couple'
Percy Steven, 67, and Roger Lockyer, 79, have been together for 40 years. They live in London
PERCY SAYS: "It wasn't until our civil partnership that we felt accepted. Since [then] we have felt like real, 100 per cent citizens, with all the same rights and privileges as a heterosexual, married couple. If one of us dies, the survivor will not have to face a tax bill; or if one of us has to go into hospital, the other is recognised as the next of kin. We were at a party and our friend introduced us by saying: "These are my friends and they are civil partners", and it was just taken for granted. I never hung my head low or crawled along the floor. With every year that passes the business of gay relationships gets less intense - and that's how it should be. We don't think of ourselves as a gay couple; we see ourselves as a couple.
Darryl and Mark: 'Things started to turn sour, so we decided to apply for a dissolution'
Darryl Bullock, 42, and Mark Godfrey, 32, had a civil partnership, but applied for a dissolution. They live in Bristol
DARRYL SAYS: "It was exciting to be the first people to go through a civil partnership, but being the first to apply for dissolution is different. I made a decision to stay with Mark for ever, but sadly it didn't work out. After seven months things started to turn sour. We weren't getting on in the way a married couple should be getting on. Now all I want to do is draw a line under a difficult period in my life and move on. The past few months have been very painful, but I have been lucky enough to have met someone else with whom I'm head over heels in love. I still firmly believe in civil partnerships, commitment and equal rights for same-sex couples, and would do it again like a shot.
Gaby And Liz: 'There are still awful reactionaries, but they have lost the argument'
Gaby Charing, 62 and Liz Day, 56, have been together for 20 years. They live in south-east London
GABY SAYS: "Being married feels great. I've never had any doubts about our relationship but somehow marriage has made it feel even more wonderful. We've been together for 20 years, but we saw the civil partnership as a public demonstration of our equality and our commitment to each other. We were so excited about it that for a month beforehand we would tell everyone we met, and their reaction was universally positive. I suppose I expected some sort of hostility from some people and I didn't get any of it from anyone. After the ceremony we had a party back at our house. The next day we went to buy a new wardrobe and when these two delivery men arrived, they could see balloons everywhere, so we told them. Their reaction was: "Congratulations, that's great - and about time too." That was the moment we knew the world has changed. There are still awful reactionaries, but they have lost the argument.
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