Leading article: Some distance left to travel


One year has passed since the Civil Partnership Act came into force. Twelve months ago, Grainne Close and Shannon Sickels took part in Britain's first "gay marriage" at Belfast City Hall. We can now see there was considerable pent-up demand for the legislation. Some 2,000 couples took up the opportunity in the first month alone. According to the Office for National Statistics, nearly 16,000 gay and lesbian couples have entered into civil partnerships. The number of "married" gay couples is likely to exceed greatly the Government's original prediction of 22,000 by the end of the decade.

At first it was mostly older couples, many of whom had waited decades for such an opportunity to make a formal commitment to each other, who entered into the contracts. But now younger gay couples are catching up. The number of lesbian partnerships is rising proportionally, too. So much for the theory that homosexual culture is inherently promiscuous.

Of course, we do not yet know how many of these unions will break down. Civil partners must wait at least a year, like heterosexual partners, before they can legally separate. But the evidence of the past year has given no reason to believe that the failure rate will be any greater than in heterosexual marriage.

And the testimony of those who have taken advantage of the legislation suggests the law has been a great success. Some of the mundane frustrations of the past, such as difficulty in opening joint bank accounts, have disappeared. So have some of the fears. Those in civil partnerships now know they will be considered a legal partner by hospitals and health authorities if their other half becomes sick.

The legislation has been a success in a broader sense. It has helped demonstrate that the relationships and hopes of gay people are generally the same as those of everyone else. There has been no backlash against these civil unions. The Conservative leader David Cameron made a point of saying civil partnerships had his support at the Tory party conference in October. As he pointed out, what better way for the state to promote stable relationships? Meanwhile, populist newspapers have embraced something that only a few decades ago they would have instinctively denigrated. This reflects how social attitudes are gradually liberalising.

We have come a long way. But nowhere near far enough. When a storyline on The Archers involving a civil partnership still has the capacity to scandalise, it is clear we have some distance left to travel on the road to full equality and acceptance for homosexual relationships.

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