You might think I was a bit of a controversial choice to make the speech yesterday at the celebrations marking the registering of the civil partnership of Sir Elton John and David Furnish. Well, I have known Elton for nearly 30 years, and am one of a handful of people who attended his previous wedding to Renata in Sydney in 1984. Even so, I admit I'm not exactly a great advertisement for any kind of marriage, having been divorced four times over a 40-year period. Like Elton, I got hitched to a Canadian, but that relationship fared no better than the preceding two, and ended after seven years.
Yesterday was a historic day for all sorts of reasons, marking the first time same-sex couples in England could exercise the same rights as heterosexual marriages in a host of important ways. From the right to claim maintenance, to be exempt from inheritance tax, and to be eligible for compensation in the event of a fatal accident. To be protected in the event of domestic violence and to have the responsibility for your partners' children. The new laws give same-sex couples recognition in the eyes of the immigration service and for the purposes of nationality and citizenship. All these are important reasons to celebrate. Now gay couples will not be discriminated against for tax purposes or in relation to pension rights, and from January same-sex couples will be able to adopt children. This piece of legislation is one the Blair Government can be proud of.
At the same time, although not an act of matrimony, the civil partnership can only be ended by using more or less the same mechanisms (a court of law) as marriages between heterosexual couples. The civil partnership can only be ended by death, dissolution or annulment. One of the parties will have to prove the relationship has broken down irretrievably, or that they have been deserted for two years.
Unreasonable behaviour (and we all know how divorce lawyers can interpret that in all manner of ways) is another ground for dissolution, or a separation period of two years if both parties are in agreement, of five years if one partner does not want the relationship to end.
All this does rather fill me with a sense of foreboding, because it could be that the one set of people who really benefit financially from this new era of equality is the legal profession, closely followed by accountants. There are those within the gay community who have said that they can't see the point of aping everything that already seems not to work in heterosexual marriage. After all, with one in three ending in divorce, the new laws could just mean that two and a half years from now gay men and women will be filling the lists at the High Court, and the national press will be full of lurid stories of claim and counter-claims, custody battles, fights over property and spats over who owns what cushions and which dogs.
I prefer to adopt a more positive prognosis, and predict that gay couples, like Elton and David, will offer a far better set of role models for the next generation than heterosexual couples.
Let's look back to 1967, the year that homosexuality between adult men was finally legalised. Was it only as recent as that? That was the year I got married for the first time, after the "summer of love";1967 was played to a soundtrack of Sergeant Pepper. Dr John, and the Velvet Underground. The Legalise Pot rally was held in Hyde Park and Mick Jagger was arrested on drugs charges. I appeared as an extra in Antonioni's film Blow Up, and Elton was already playing in Bluesology, backing Long John Baldry in clubs up and down the country.
Since 1967, the gay community has had to deal with discrimination, prejudice and Aids. In many ways, they have offered the rest of us endless examples of how to behave with dignity in a whole variety of difficult situations, with good humour and grace. It's not gay men and women puking their guts out in our city centres on Saturday nights, It's not generally gay men fathering and gay women giving birth to unplanned babies while still at school.
The gay community has fought long and hard for civil partnerships, and Britain has followed other countries (like predominately Roman Catholic Spain) where gay marriage has been made legal, even though the Pope himself has adopted a hard line on homosexuality in general. The Church of England is still feebly unsupportive of gay marriage and gay bishops. The first civil partnership ceremonies in Belfast were marked by placard-waving, protesting Christians announcing "sodomy is sin", and a spokesman from Ian Paisley's Free Presbyterian Church alleging homosexuals were responsible for a "plague" which led to mental illness and suicide. The sooner the leaders of the Anglican Church disassociate themselves from this bigotry the better.
Of course, gay men and women have flings, one-night stands, unprotected sex, and abusive relationships, exactly like heterosexuals. But most of the couples who will enter into civil partnerships by the end of this year will have lived together for longer than their straight counterparts. Elton and David have known each other for 12 years, and during that period their relationship has matured and deepened in a way that I never allowed any of mine to do. All this week, the press has carried stories of gay couples formalising their relationships after years, not weeks or months, of knowing each other.
Elton's own life story mirrors exactly the changing attitudes to homosexuality in Britain. Engaged once, then married briefly, he finally came out and then swiftly morphed into the world's most famous gay man. He has been through some tough personal experiences during this time, culminating in a period in rehab for drink and drugs. He is a tireless campaigner and giver to those less fortunate than himself, donating millions to Aids sufferers and their families. He has made a huge difference to the lives of millions of poor African men and women, enabling them to work and live and die with dignity.
At the same time, his relationship with David has given him the strength to finally grow up and trust someone else. Ironically, because their main home is in Windsor, they signed their partnership agreement in the very same room that the heir to the throne and future Defender of the Faith used to finally marry the woman he committed adultery with during his marriage to Princess Diana.
I am sure that Elton and David meant no disrespect, but it's plain, from the cheering crowds in Windsor yesterday, and the general air of celebration, exactly which couple of Queens the British public have taken to their hearts. So let's toast their happiness, and all the other men and women who are cementing their partnerships up and down the country this week.Reuse content