A civil proposal for marriage

A straight couple are fighting for the right to be civil partners, reports Jerome Taylor
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The Independent Online

How about this for a proposal? Darling, I love you and I want to spend the rest of my life with you. The thing is, I don't approve of marriage. It's riddled with historical baggage and is a discriminatory system still forbidden to our gay friends. So why don't we publicly declare our love by challenging Britain's marriage laws and register a heterosexual civil partnership? They'll say no, of course, but at least we can battle them in the courts for years.

That is exactly what Tom Freeman and his partner, Katherine Doyle, will do tomorrow when they go to Islington Register Office and request a civil partnership. "It's not very romantic," admits Ms Doyle with a smile. "But it's something that needs to be done."

Their ruse is part of a campaign by eight gay and straight couples to challenge the bans preventing gay couples from marrying and heterosexual couples from seeking a civil partnership. In the coming weeks, the couples will head to their nearest register office to ask for something they know will be refused. Then they will launch a joint legal action arguing that Britain's marriage laws are discriminatory and illegal under human rights legislation.

Since 2005's Civil Partnership Act, same-sex couples have been effectively allowed the same "rights" to marry as their straight counterparts. But marriage itself remains forbidden, something that many lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people believe is discriminatory. It is also out of step with the 10 countries to have introduced parity between civil marriage and civil partnership: Argentina, Belgium, Canada, Iceland, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, South Africa, Spain and Sweden.

Although the campaign is being co-ordinated by the gay rights group Outrage!, it is as much a heterosexual rights issue as it is a gay one.

Ed Milliband and Nick Clegg have both come out in support of gay marriages. David Cameron has remained on the fence, stating that he would "consider" it. So the likelihood is that the eight couples will spend years fighting this battle in the courts.

Over a mug of tea in their tiny fifth-floor flat in north London, Mr Freeman and Ms Doyle, who met five years ago while students at Durham, explain why they are part of the campaign.

"Marriage is something that we're brought up with," says Ms Doyle, a 26-year-old postgraduate student. "Every girl grows up dreaming of that white wedding. But over time I realised I was not happy with marriage as an option. The husband-wife relationship implies certain roles and once you start thinking those thoughts, you can't put them away again and just be happy with the term wife."

Mr Freeman, also 26, adds: "Until marriage stops discriminating against people, I want no part of it."

If France is any measure, there may be demand among heterosexual couples for an alternative to marriage that isn't called "marriage". In 1999 the French parliament approved the creation of pactes civil de solidarité (pacs) – open to heterosexual as well as same-sex couples. Now, for every three marriages in France, there are two pacs, 95 per cent of which are heterosexual.

The "Equal Love" campaign has brought on board Robert Wintemute, professor of human rights law at King's College London. "These bans violate the UK's Human Rights Act," he says. "The UK Government is discriminating on the ground of sexual orientation, contrary to the Human Rights Act."