Eighteen months ago, civil partnerships gave marriage rights to gay and lesbian couples. Already, 16,000 couples have tied the knot. Kate Hilpern reports

Eighteen months have passed since the Civil Partnership Act came into force. On 19 December 2005, Grainne Close and Shannon Sickels took part in Britain's first "gay marriage" at Belfast City Hall. A further 2,000 couples took up the opportunity in the first month, with 15,672 taking place in the first year. With civil partnerships predicted to increase by 180 per cent this year, the number of civil partnerships between gay couples looks set to greatly exceed the Government's original prediction of 22,000 by the end of the decade.

Not surprisingly, it's the high-profile cases that have attracted the most attention. Elton John and David Furnish got hitched with a shower of champagne and glamour, while Ben Bradshaw became the first MP to take his vows with long-term partner Neal Dalgleish in a ceremony that he described as "the happiest day of my life". But the very best thing about the law allowing same-sex couples to register as civil partners is that most people have been able to take advantage of it with such little fuss. Even Conservative leader David Cameron made a point of saying civil partnerships had his support, at the last Tory party conference.

"I am originally from Tasmania, where it was illegal to be gay when I left, so this total acceptance of gay marriage over here was a revelation for me," says Mark Smith, 35, who tied the knot with his partner, Karl, 42, last April. "Having been together for 10 years, everyone thought it was the most normal thing in the world for us to do and I've been met with nothing but support."

Smith also welcomes the legal and financial benefits that civil partnership brings. "We definitely feel more protected," he says.

Indeed, the legislation has given gay and lesbian partners the same rights as their straight counterparts, including becoming their partner's next of kin and benefiting from inheritance and pension rights. For the first time, gay partners also gained the right to register a death, to bereavement benefits, to stay living in a shared rented home, and, if it all goes wrong, to divorce - although the process is called disolution.

Ben Summerskill, chief executive of Stonewall, points out that you only have to look at the number of tragic cases prior to the act coming in to recognise the importance of such benefits. "There were people who lost their homes to inheritance tax and people who were prevented from being with their partners at their death beds in hospitals. The fact that this is now unthinkable for tens of thousands of people is hugely significant," he says.

Introducing a package of rights and responsibilities that matched those of heterosexual married couples wasn't easy, he admits. "Pension rights were not included in the original bill and we had quite a fight to get them included. But we did it."

Summerskill believes that the advantages of civil partnerships don't stop there. "Unlike 30 years ago, nobody can possibly say that they don't know a homosexual. Hundreds of thousands of people have been invited to a ceremony or at least know someone who has had one," he says. "This has a wider significance than it might appear because the moment you move beyond refusing to acknowledge the existence of a sizable minority community, you have to start recognising the importance of being fair to them."

This, he believes, is largely why further legislation has successfully been introduced since - notably the new goods and services protections for lesbian, gay and bisexual (LGB) people, which came into effect on 30 April.

The stereotype of gay men being naturally promiscious is also starting to change. "What has been emphasised by civil partnerships is that many gay couples have been living together far longer than most heterosexual marriages last," says Summerskill. Indeed, while younger gay and lesbian couples are now just as likely to get hitched as their older counterparts, when the Civil Partnership Act first came in it was mostly older couples - many of whom had waited decades for the opportunity - who entered into the contracts.

Tony Blin-Stoyle, country manager for the gay and lesbian dating agency Parship, agrees with Summerskill. "Our data shows that 47 per cent of gay men and 41 per cent of gay women are looking for a serious relationship, which was why we set up a dating agency for people looking for a long-term relationship," he says. "Although stereotypes of promiscious gay men are still strong in many people's minds, the huge number of people entering into civil partnerships is slowly forcing people to realise that many gay relationships are as long-lasting and normal as anyone else's."

For Joanna Webber, co-writer of The Complete Guide to Gay and Lesbian Weddings, the introduction of civil partnerships has also meant that the LGB community is less isolated. "The Civil Partnership Act is a legal recognition of homosexual love, which inevitably leads to a wider social acceptance of it," she says.

Civil unions first began in Denmark in 1989 and have since been established in law in many developed countries. But while they have been largely hailed a success, they have not been without some problems. The church remains torn on its views about civil partnerships, and some gay and lesbian couples find themselves accused by friends of "selling out" to heterosexual norms. Others have families who object strongly to the idea of gay marriage.

Professor Carol Smart, who has carried out research into civil partnerships, says, "We found an overall level of acceptance from families. However, some gay men and lesbians experienced telling their families of their plans to be like coming out again. For some parents it meant that they could no longer assume that their son or daughter was going through a phase that they would grow out of."

Julian Bremner, a divorce lawyer who is gay, had the opposite problem. "Having never had to contemplate committing matrimony before, you would be surprised at the sudden pressure to tie the knot from friends and family - all wanting new hats for some reason. This is forcing many couples to reassess whether they want that level of commitment."

A further problem, he believes, is that "when getting married, most straight people are well aware of the fallout of marital breakdown. Gay couples rarely are." He explains: "I don't think it has entered the gay consciousness that if you are a rich man with assets and a high income marrying someone with no assets, that if your civil partnership does not work out you may be opening yourself to a claim for half your assets and spousal maintenance."

Joanne and Jane Fletcher tied the knot in October 2006. Joanne, 38, and Jane, 30, have been together six years and live in Manchester.

Joanne says: "Jane proposed to me a few months after civil partnerships came in. Our motivation was to celebrate our love and formally to commit to each other.

We were very lucky because we were fully supported by all our family and friends. I know there are lots of couples who are met with animosity about their decision.

We both enjoyed planning our big day, although it can be difficult when you have two women, who both happen to be quite girly, trying to pick what to wear! Because we didn't want to wear meringues or glitzy evening dresses, Jane wound up making our outfits, which were long silk dresses.

Sale registry office, where we had our ceremony, was very accommodating and we had about 40 guests. It was a fantastic day.

Although Jane and I don't feel any different since our civil partnership, I think our families treat our relationship a little more seriously. But there are still people - well, organisations - that don't. I had an operation recently and when the nurse filled in the consent form, she asked if I was married or single. I said I was a civil partner and she just ticked the single box. Similarly, when I recently opened a bank account, there was no third option on the form. So I think there is still some way to go."

Legally bound

Civil partners have equal treatment in a wide range of legal matters with married couples, including:

* Tax, including inheritance tax

* Employment benefits

* Most state and occupational pension benefits

* Income related benefits, tax credits and child support

* Recognition for immigration and nationality purposes

* Duty to provide reasonable maintenance for your civil partner and any children of the family

* Ability to apply for parental responsibility for your civil partner's child

* Inheritance of a tenancy agreement

* Recognition under intestacy rules

* Access to fatal accidents compensation

* Protection from domestic violence