Joan Smith: Even the ancient Romans had different forms of marriage

In retrospect, Blair's eagerness to reduce (but not eradicate) discrimination against gay people created a situation that is unfair and unsatisfactory all round

Share
Related Topics

Five years ago this month, when civil partnerships were allowed in law for the first time, onlookers smiled warmly as gay and lesbian couples emerged from their long-awaited ceremonies; among the first to benefit were Sir Elton John and David Furnish, who organised their ceremony and the party afterwards with typical flamboyance. It was a huge step forward for gay men and lesbians, as well as a boost to the greetings card industry, which seized the chance to produce civil partnership cards as well as the more usual wedding ones.

For a while, just about the only people I knew who tied the knot were gay couples, and I was moved almost to tears last summer when a friend and his boyfriend walked down the aisle at Sheffield City Hall, hand in hand and wearing matching tuxedoes. To begin with, most people seemed prepared to overlook the fact that the new law was blatantly discriminatory, although a straight friend of mine was startled when she was told by the local town hall that she couldn't book a civil partnership ceremony because her partner was a man.

In retrospect, Tony Blair's eagerness to reduce (but not eradicate) discrimination against gay people created a situation that is unfair and unsatisfactory all round: gay couples are banned from getting married, while straight couples are not allowed to form civil partnerships. It doesn't make any sense and yesterday saw, not before time, the launch of a challenge to the law.

The cases are being brought by four gay and four heterosexual couples, all of whom have been turned away from register offices over the past two months. The same-sex couples were told by registrars in Greenwich, Northampton and Petersfield that they couldn't apply for a civil marriage licence; the straight couples were turned away in Islington, Camden, Bristol and Aldershot on the grounds that they cannot apply for civil partnership status. According to the Matrimonial Causes Act 1973, the parties to a marriage must be male and female, while the Civil Partnership Act 2004 stipulates that they must belong to the same sex. All the couples intend to argue at the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg that their treatment contravenes articles of the Human Rights Act that guarantee respect for private life, family life and the right to marry, and prohibit discrimination.

Because Peter Tatchell is one of the instigators of the Equal Love campaign, it has been reported as though it is entirely about gay rights, but it is to Tatchell's credit that he was one of the first people to spot that the law is unfair to straight people as well. One of the heterosexual men bringing the challenge observed on yesterday's Today programme on Radio 4 that many straight people don't like the baggage that comes with marriage. They see it as an old-fashioned institution whose roots lie deep in patriarchy; Lucy Hilken, whose application for a civil partnership with her boyfriend, Tim Garrett, was turned down in Aldershot last week, said she would prefer it because "it is free from the negative, orthodox traditions of marriage".

For heterosexuals, marriage isn't a joining together of equals; you become husband and wife, not partners, and the roles still come with different expectations. When I got married years ago, I had to fight to keep my own name but no one expected my then husband to change his; there is no longer an automatic assumption these days that a woman will give up her "maiden" name, but families can be surprisingly conservative in their views about how a married woman is supposed to behave. What feels like an important symbol of acceptance for gay and lesbian couples no longer suits many straight people, which is a powerful argument in favour of choice.

The Romans had different forms of marriage, evolving over the centuries as women came to be regarded as something more than just the property of their husbands or fathers. Something similar has happened in this country: civil marriage was introduced in 1837, allowing couples to get married in a register office instead of a church, and the first Divorce Act became law 20 years later. Lawrence Stone's magisterial study of marriage and divorce before 1857 is called Uncertain Unions & Broken Lives, calling attention to the misery caused by couples' uncertain legal status and the difficulty of obtaining a parliamentary divorce.

Civil partnerships are an imperfect step on the long road to modern relationships between adults, creating a weird situation in which choice is restricted for everybody on grounds of sexual orientation. According to Professor Robert Wintemute, legal adviser to the Equal Love Campaign, the law as it stands is "discriminatory and obnoxious"; he compares it to having "separate drinking fountains or beaches for different racial groups, even though the water is the same".

He's right. The arguments against gay and lesbian couples being allowed to marry are insulting, harking back to reactionary Conservative thinking about "pretend" family relationships; the only argument I've heard against extending civil partnerships to heterosexuals is that they should get married instead, which is too absurd to be taken seriously. Some people are happy to cohabit but there are good reasons, symbolic and practical, for opting for a relationship that has official recognition; it offers clarity about next of kin, advantages in terms of inheritance and a public statement of commitment.

In fact, there is no logical reason why civil partnerships should be restricted to people in a sexual relationship. In some countries, it is possible for sisters, brothers or friends to form a civil partnership in order to protect joint assets; a change in the law in this country would remove tremendous anxiety from elderly friends and relatives who share houses or flats. Indeed I'm amazed that some enterprising backbench MP hasn't already challenged all these anomalies with a private member's bill, obviating the need to mount an expensive challenge at the European court.

I'm sure Tony Blair meant well when he introduced civil partnerships, but it has become clear that he landed us with is a typical New Labour fudge. Now he has taken himself off to the Catholic Church, we are sorely in need of bolder, braver and more modern politicians to clear up the mess.

www.politicalblonde.com

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Senior Digital Marketing Consultant

£28000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Senior Digital Marketing Cons...

Recruitment Genius: Assistant Stores Keeper

£16640 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An Assistant Stores Keeper is r...

Recruitment Genius: Claims Administrator

£16000 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an excellent opportunit...

Recruitment Genius: Software Developer - C# / ASP.NET / SQL

£17000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Developer required to join a bu...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Mosul falls: Talk of Iraq retaking the town, held by IS since June, is unconvincing  

Isis on the run? The US portrayal is very far from the truth

Patrick Cockburn
John Rentoul met Ed Miliband aged 23, remarking he was “bright, and put up a good fight for the utilities tax, but I was unconvinced.”  

General Election 2015: Win or lose, Ed Miliband is not ready to govern

John Rentoul
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

Everyone is talking about The Trews

Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living
Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

Homeless people keep mobile phones

A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before
'Queer saint' Peter Watson left his mark on British culture by bankrolling artworld giants

'Queer saint' who bankrolled artworld giants

British culture owes a huge debt to Peter Watson, says Michael Prodger
Pushkin Prizes: Unusual exchange programme aims to bring countries together through culture

Pushkin Prizes brings countries together

Ten Scottish schoolchildren and their Russian peers attended a creative writing workshop in the Highlands this week
14 best kids' hoodies

14 best kids' hoodies

Don't get caught out by that wind on the beach. Zip them up in a lightweight top to see them through summer to autumn
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The acceptable face of the Emirates

The acceptable face of the Emirates

Has Abu Dhabi found a way to blend petrodollars with principles, asks Robert Fisk