Gay couples rush to register intention to marry in first civil partnership ceremonies

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The Independent Online

The register office at Brighton Town Hall opened especially early at 7.30am but, in their excitement, Debbie and Elaine Gaston had already been waiting outside for half an hour, with three other couples.

They were aiming to be the first same-sex couples in the country to register their intention to marry under the new Civil Partnership Act which came into force yesterday.

It was a day that carried huge political significance for gay rights in Britain, and caused some family campaigners to mutter darkly about the sanctity of marriage and the fabric of society being threatened.

But for the Gastons (Elaine changed her surname by deed poll) it was a matter of having their partnership formally recognised after 16 years together. Yesterday was the first step, when couples could formally register their intention to go through with a civil partnership ceremony. They then have to go through a 15-day waiting period before being able to wed, in their case on 21 December.

Debbie Gaston, 46, who is vicar of the Brighton Metropolitan Community Church, said: "It was wonderful; very emotional, very special. We were aware that it was history in the making and we were overwhelmed by it all. It's been a long time coming."

She and Elaine intend to enter the record books at 8am on 21 December as the first couple to go through with the formal, 20-minute ceremony that will give them the same legal rights as their married heterosexual counterparts.

More than 1,000 couples registered their intentions to marry and booked their ceremony slots yesterday, with more than 5,000 more expected to "get partnered" within the next year. Brighton and Hove is claiming to be the gay wedding capital of Britain, with more than 500 provisional bookings over the next months.

Bromley Council in south-east London, which initially said it was not going to offer the ceremonies because there was no call for them, performed a U-turn recently after being threatened with human rights cases. A spokeswoman for Bromley register office said 14 people registered their intention to marry yesterday.

For some gay rights campaigners, the reforms do not go far enough. Brett Lock, of the lobby group Outrage, said the new law was flawed because it still differentiated between heterosexual marriage and gay civil partnerships.

He called for the same legal recognition to be introduced for all "significant" relationships, including those between friends. "We need an entirely new framework of relationship recognition because many non-sexual friendships are just as sincere, loyal and enriching as relations between people in love," he said.

Ironically, this was the same argument used by the Conservative peer Baroness O'Cathain, who vehemently opposescivil partnerships and believes that the new law is "totally discriminatory". She said the Act gave homosexual couples rights over each other's inheritance and property that were still denied to siblings who were looking after their elderly parents.

"Marriage is a sacrament," she said. "All the values of this country have been built up on a stable social relationship of marriage - two people getting together, having children."

'The myth remains that gay men are promiscuous'

Ivan Rowland, 68, and his partner Alan Ashmole, 74, have lived together for 32 years in south London. They will be among the first gay couples to register a civil partnership.

IVAN: I lived through the 1950s and 1960s as a gay man. I was in the Royal Navy for six years until 1962 and you don't get a more macho culture than that. Any hint that you were gay would have led at best to a discharge. I could have ended up spending two years in a Navy prison.

In 1967, the Wolfenden report led to the decriminalising of homosexual acts between consenting adults but nothing changed immediately. You can pass laws but a piece of legislation doesn't in itself change attitudes. That happens slowly, over decades.

When Alan and I got together and moved into this house in 1972, we decided not to tell the neighbours we were gay. To be honest we never saw the need for it. It was the same in my work. It wasn't fear of coming out. I just couldn't see that it mattered to tell people about me and Alan. Over the years our neighbours have come to appreciate us and understand.

We are registering for a civil partnership for practical reasons. I want to be Alan's legal next of kin. And if he dies before me I'd like to have some rights as far as his pension is concerned. I'm looking forward to referring to him as my partner-in-law. When I say partner now it sounds like we are in business together, not in love. But I get annoyed when I read about George Michael and Elton John talking about getting married. This is not a marriage. Marriage is for men and women. It's society's way of regulating procreation. We won't be doing that.

ALAN: I didn't come out to myself until I was in my thirties. I had been brought up in a strictly Methodist home and homosexuals were nasty, perverted people. It took me a long time to come to terms with being one of those nasty, perverted people.

I was in the Territorial Army when the Wolfenden Act came into force. It wasn't a conducive environment for a gay man. If anyone had found out I'd probably have been asked to leave. In my career as a banker, people knew I was gay but I never said. When I met Ivan and we set up home together, we did so as far as the rest of the world was concerned as two men, not as a couple. I didn't tell my family I was gay but they realised, although no one said anything.

Ivan and I would never walk along the road hand-in-hand. We would never kiss and cuddle in public, and even with civil partnerships that won't change. We've lived through a period of changing attitudes, but the old stereotypes have taken a long time to change. Despite how long we've been together - and we have many gay friends who've managed the same - the myth remains that gay men are promiscuous and can't settle.

After all these years we don't need a piece of paper to keep us together or prove that we love each other. But telling our friends, families and neighbours that we are doing it has meant that for the first time we have told them out loud that we are gay. They couldn't have been happier for us.