This week is the tenth anniversary of the first civil partnerships in the UK.
Civil partnerships were an important, valued advance. From 2005, for the first time in the UK, same-sex couples were able to secure legal recognition and rights. Previously, their relationships did not exist in the eyes of the law. This meant that lesbian and gay partners were not legally recognised as next-of-kin, which often caused huge distress and disadvantage in the event of one of them being hospitalised or dying.
Despite their benefits, civil partnerships were not equality. They enshrined (and still enshrine) pension inheritance discrimination. In the event of a civil partner dying, the surviving partner does not have the same right as a married heterosexual person to inherit their deceased partner’s full pension. This can leave them much worse off financially.
Moreover, civil partnerships were, in part, introduced to avoid having to concede the demand for same-sex marriage. They created a segregated, mutually-exclusive two-tier system of relationship law: marriages for opposite-sex couples only and civil partnerships for same-sex couples only.
With the advent of civil marriage equality, this discrimination has been both alleviated and reinforced. Same-sex couples can now marry but opposite-sex couples remain banned from civil partnerships.
This gives lesbians, gays and bisexuals a legal advantage. They’ve got two options, civil marriage and civil partnership, whereas heterosexual couples have only one option, marriage. That’s neither fair nor right. In a democratic society, we should all be equal before the law.
Despite calls to scrap civil partnerships, it is important they continue. Some straight and gay couples prefer them. They don’t like the sexist, patriarchal history of marriage and the language of husband and wife. Civil partnerships are more modern and egalitarian, without the negative traditions and connotations of matrimony.
In the government’s 2012 public consultation, two-thirds of respondents wanted them retained – and opened up to opposite-sex couples. In a follow up 2014 consultation, of currently unmarried heterosexuals, 63% said they would choose marriage and 20% indicated they would prefer a civil partnership, if it was available. We’ve got marriage equality (almost). Now it’s time for civil partnership equality too.