Keep civil partnerships: marriage shouldn't be the only option for any couple seeking legal recognition and rights

Many same-sex and opposite-sex couples would prefer civil partnerships to marriage

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The Independent Online

The Government’s three month public consultation on the future of civil partnerships closes at 5pm today.

It sets out three options: abolish civil partnerships and forcibly convert existing ones into marriages; disallow new civil partnerships but retain existing ones; keep civil partnerships and open them to opposite-sex couples. I support the latter option but oppose the former two.

Scrapping civil partnerships would be a bad move. Many same-sex and opposite-sex couples reject the misogynistic, homophobic history of marriage. They dislike the antiquated language of husband and wife. They'd prefer a civil partnership, finding it more egalitarian and modern.

Of the same-sex couples who have already had a civil partnership, many entered into it precisely because it was not marriage. They don't want to be married. To forcibly convert their civil partnership into a marriage against their wishes would violate the contract they entered into - a civil partnership. This would infringe their choice, autonomy and rights. It would be authoritarian to compel them to convert to marriage in contravention of their will. Marriage should not be the only option. Couples should not be forced to marry to get legal recognition and rights. 

I’m also opposed to the option of halting the registration of new civil partnerships but retaining existing ones. This would isolate and marginalise existing civil partners and amounts to a de facto de-legitimisation of their status. It would deny legal recognition and rights to current and future couples who don’t want to marry, for whatever reason, but who do want the legal security and protection that civil partnerships offer. 

The option I strongly favour is maintaining civil partnerships and making them available to opposite-sex couples. The current ban on heterosexual civil partnerships is a form of inequality, with no ethical or practical justification.   

As a basic democratic and human rights right principle, everyone should be equal before the law. To deny opposite-sex couples the right to have a civil partnership is discrimination and discrimination is wrong. It cannot be justified, no matter how many or how few opposite-sex couples may want a civil partnership.

The evidence from the Netherlands is that since civil partnerships have been open to all, many opposite-sex couples have taken advantage of the opportunity. In fact, today most Dutch civil partnerships are between opposite-sex couples. The same is likely to happen if UK civil partnerships are made available to couples of the opposite-sex.

Based on the experience in the Netherlands, perhaps 10-15 per cent of British male-female couples would seek a civil partnership. These are often women and men who dislike the patriarchal traditions of marriage. In a society that respects diversity, they are entitled to their view and to the alternative to marriage provided by civil partnerships. For their security and their mutual rights and responsibilities, it is better that currently unmarried opposite-sex couples have a civil partnership, rather than merely live together and have no legal protection; especially where children are involved.

Legalising same-sex marriage was the recognition that lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people are of equal worth and have the right to equal treatment in law. The same principle of equality applies in the case of civil partnerships. Heterosexual couples should be able to have a civil partnership if they wish. Many straight people supported the campaign for same-sex marriage. The LGBT community and the Government should reciprocate by supporting their right to have a civil partnership.

Under the current law, since 29 March 2014, same-sex couples have the option of two forms of official recognition: civil partnership and marriage. Opposite-sex couples have only one option: marriage. This is legal discrimination against heterosexuals. For the first time in British history, same-sex couples have a legal advantage over opposite-sex couples. That’s not fair or right.

My human rights campaigning is based on the principle of equality for all. I can’t accept LGBT human rights at the neglect of equal rights for heterosexual couple. For me, selective and partial equality is unthinkable.

The Government has previously claimed there is little demand from heterosexual couples for an end to the prohibition on opposite-sex civil partnerships. I am not aware of any credible, authoritative evidence for such a claim. Were it true, so what? Even if only a handful of straight men and women want a civil partnership, the principle of legal equality remains valid; as does the principle of free choice.

The Government’s 2012 public consultation on legalising same-sex marriage included a question on whether civil partnerships should be retained and opened to heterosexual couples. A whopping 61 per cent of respondents supported extending civil partnerships to opposite-sex couples. Only 24 per cent opposed. Clearly, there is already a mandate for civil partnership equality.

In a multicultural democracy, all couples should have the right to decide for themselves what legal system of relationship recognition is best for them. The Government shouldn’t dictate by law that everyone must conform to the traditional marriage model. From a compassionate and democratic perspective, it feels wrong for the law to assert that marriage is the only valid legal commitment that heterosexual couples should be permitted to make.

Granting opposite-sex civil partnerships will not undermine marriage. Both civil marriages and civil partnerships embody the same core values of love, commitment, loyalty and stability. Why does it matter if a straight couple choose a civil partnership? How does their choice undermine the marriages of the others and the authority of an institution that still enjoys majority support? Civil partnerships may be a different institution from marriage but they are, in most respects, marriage-like. So why maintain the ban on female-male civil partnerships?