Civil partnerships: Darling, happy anniversary

In the first year of civil partnerships, 15,500 couples tied the knot - and a few untied it as well. Stuart Husband reveals how the British - even in Ambridge - have taken gay weddings to their hearts

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.

Interviews by Sarah Harris

News
Kenny Ireland, pictured in 2010.
peopleActor, from House of Cards and Benidorm, was 68
News
A scene from the video shows students mock rioting
newsSchool leaver's YouTube video features staging of a playground gun massacre
Travel
travel
Environment
View from the Llanberis Track to the mountain lake Llyn
Du’r Arddu
environmentA large chunk of Mount Snowdon, in north Wales, is up for sale
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Voices
A family sit and enjoy a quiet train journey
voicesForcing us to overhear dull phone conversations is an offensive act, says Simon Kelner
Arts and Entertainment
The cast of The Big Bang Theory in a still from the show
tvBig Bang Theory filming delayed by contract dispute over actors' pay
Sport
England celebrate a wicket for Moeen Ali
sportMoeen Ali stars with five wickets as Cook's men level India series
News
Morrissey pictured in 2013
people
Life and Style
The director of Wall-E Andrew Stanton with Angus MacLane's Lego model
gadgetsDesign made in Pixar animator’s spare time could get retail release
News
peopleGuitarist, who played with Aerosmith, Lou Reed and Alice Cooper among others, was 71
Travel
travel
News
Robyn Lawley
people
News
people
News
i100  ... he was into holy war way before it was on trend
Arts and Entertainment
High-flyer: Chris Pratt in 'Guardians of the Galaxy'
filmThe film is surprisingly witty, but could do with taking itself more seriously, says Geoffrey Macnab
News
people
Life and Style
food + drinkVegetarians enjoy food as much as anyone else, writes Susan Elkin
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

Day In a Page

Save the tiger: Tiger, tiger burning less brightly as numbers plummet

Tiger, tiger burning less brightly

When William Blake wrote his famous poem there were probably more than 100,000 tigers in the wild. These days they probably number around 3,200
A tale of two presidents: George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story

A tale of two presidents

George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story
Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

We will remember them

Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

Acting in video games gets a makeover

David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices
Could our smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases via Health Kit and Google Fit?

Could smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases?

Health Kit and Google Fit have been described as "the beginning of a health revolution"
Ryanair has turned on the 'charm offensive' but can we learn to love the cut-price carrier again?

Can we learn to love Ryanair again?

Four recent travellers give their verdicts on the carrier's improved customer service
Billionaire founder of Spanx launches range of jeans that offers

Spanx launches range of jeans

The jeans come in two styles, multiple cuts and three washes and will go on sale in the UK in October
10 best over-ear headphones

Aural pleasure: 10 best over-ear headphones

Listen to your favourite tracks with this selection, offering everything from lambskin earmuffs to stainless steel
Commonwealth Games 2014: David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end

Commonwealth Games

David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end
UCI Mountain Bike World Cup 2014: Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings

UCI Mountain Bike World Cup

Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings
Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain