IT’S TEN YEARS this month since the first civil partnerships for same-sex couples in the UK.
The first couple to benefit from the new legal recognition for their relationship were Chris Cramp and Matthew Roche from West Sussex, on 5th December 2005. Yet when images from the first UK civil partnerships appear in the media to accompany stories about same-sex relationships and marriage equality, it’s not this couple you see.
They had the privilege of being first, some two weeks before it was possible for other couples, because Matthew was terminally ill, so the register office waived the mandatory 15 day waiting period between requesting and registering a civil partnership.
Within 24 hours of their ceremony, Matthew died with Chris at his side. Chris believes Matthew held on long enough to see the day they could become partners in law as well as in life. You can read their story here.
I have only just learned of this story – I suspect I am not alone in that. It illustrates poignantly why legal recognition of same-sex relationships is important. Without it, there is no guarantee that a partner’s role as next of kin would be recognised at times of health crisis. Fortunately for Chris and Matthew, staff at the hospice were supportive, and it was the chaplain there who made the registrar aware of their situation so she could make an early exception for them.
Not every same-sex couple is so supported in tragic circumstances. The documentary Bridegroom tells the story of Tom and Shane from California, who were together for six years – Tom had promised to marry Shane when it became legal in the USA. But when Tom died in an accident in 2011, his family ostracised Shane because they could not accept their relationship, and the law did not recognise Shane’s role in Tom’s life. The family even prevented Shane from attending the funeral they expected him to pay for. You can watch the short film Shane made which inspired the documentary here (10 minutes 40 seconds):
You might think that couldn’t happen in the UK – but in July 2014, Nazim Mahmood took his own life days after his Muslim family discovered his sexuality, abruptly ending his 13 year relationship with Matt Ogston. They were engaged, but not married. Naz’s family told Matt the wrong time so that he would miss the funeral. Matt set up the Naz and Matt Foundation to tackle homophobia triggered by religion and help parents accept their children. You can watch Matt tell their story here (10 minutes 13 seconds):
In both these tragic cases, a family’s understanding of their faith led to less than loving responses. For our civil partnership, we found loving and welcoming responses from our families and faith communities.
The first civil partnerships under the usual legal process were in Northern Ireland on 19th December 2005 (though the province remains the only state in the UK which does not recognise same-sex marriage), followed by Scotland on the 20th, then England and Wales on the 21st.
Civil partnerships, like civil marriages for heterosexual couples in the UK, cannot include religious readings, music or symbols. At first, it was not possible to register a civil partnership at a place of worship. Then in February 2011, the UK Government announced that, as a result of the Equality Act 2010, it would remove the restriction on places of worship hosting civil partnership ceremonies if the governing body of a faith community opted to do so. This came into force on 5th December 2011, as my partner and I were planning our civil partnership.
We had booked the register office for a small, simple ceremony on Saturday 5th May 2012, followed by a blessing at a Unitarian Church on Sunday 6th. When we heard that the law had changed, we spoke to the registrar and the church, and the race was on for the church to become an approved venue for civil partnerships in time for our blessing. The church we had chosen was not the first place of worship to be approved for civil partnerships – another Unitarian chapel in Manchester beat them to it – but they already had us booked in, so we began to realise the possibility that we might be the first couple to register our partnership in a place of worship.
It was close – as the 15 day legal notification period approached, the church had not been approved, so we had to choose: either continue with the original plan or cancel the register office and hope for the best, and risk having to do the legal bit quietly afterwards if it didn’t work out. So we took a leap of faith and cancelled the register office. It was worth it – the church’s approval came through just in time, and the registrar was able to attend the church at the same time as our blessing service. To comply with the prohibition of religious readings, music or symbols from civil partnerships, which is still in place, we had to sign the register in a side room without religious imagery. The registrar was supposed to come at the start, get us to sign the legal document, and leave before the religious service began, but I persuaded her to stay, so that we could sign the register in a similar way that a heterosexual couple would if they have a church wedding. I hope she didn’t get into too much trouble!
Once the registrar confirmed that we were the first couple to register a civil partnership in a place of worship in the UK, we made local and national newspaper headlines and the local TV news. The local media approached us again the following year when, after the largest public consultation ever which began just before our civil partnership, Parliament debated the proposed changes in marriage legislation.
Though delighted to have a place in the history of progress towards equality for same-sex couples, we could not have guessed the speed at which change would take place. The Marriage (Same-Sex Couples) Act passed into law with a substantial majority vote in Parliament in May 2013, with the date for the first same-sex marriages set in March 2014. From 10th December 2014, couples already in civil partnerships were permitted to convert their civil partnership into a marriage. At first this was proposed as merely a private legal process of filling in a form and receiving a ‘certificate of conversion’, but following a petition to the Government, couples could opt for a ceremony at a register office or any other approved venue, at which the registrar issues a marriage certificate back-dated to the date of the civil partnership. As an incentive to couples to convert their civil partnership, and a recognition of the reaction against the original proposals, couples who opted for a ceremony at a register office could do so without charge for the first 12 months.
When the Government announced plans for converting civil partnerships to marriage in 2014, I teased my partner that it was his turn to propose, as I had asked him last time! He asked me in August, so we planned a small, simple register office ceremony like we would have had in 2012, and arranged it for last weekend, so we would benefit from the 12 month window in which the ceremony is free. We planned to invite mainly those who could not be there in 2012.
As we told friends about our plans, we had to explain to some why we wanted to do it, as most consider us already married, as we did too. For us it was about finishing what we started – if we had been able to choose marriage in 2012, we would have. We wrote our own blessing service and were careful not to use any language traditionally associated with weddings, e.g. we made promises, not vows, and spoke of covenant, not marriage. It was important to recognise that, though it might have a legal equivalence to marriage, it wasn’t marriage.
Others encouraged us not to keep it simple and private, particularly the inclusive Anglican church where my partner and I run a monthly service for the LGBT community. We are much more involved there now than we were in 2012, so when the vicar offered a service of celebration and thanksgiving (as much as the Church of England will allow), we accepted with gratitude and pleasure.
So we went from the register office to the church for the service, surrounded by nearly eighty members of our church community, members of the LGBT worship group, a few family and close friends, followed by an impressive bring-and-share buffet to which everyone contributed. It was a truly joyful day, filled with love and a few surprises. Perhaps the greatest of these was the message we received from the Anglican Bishop of Liverpool, who responded to my partner’s Facebook post about our plans with these words:
Every good wish, and many thanks for all you both are, and all you both do, in our community.
We have a lot to be thankful for, but we’re not complacent – in prayers during the service we remembered the eight countries where gay men face the death penalty and 75 countries where they may face imprisonment for expressing their love.
Marriage equality finally came to England and Wales in 2014 and the USA in 2015, two nations out of 22 where same-sex marriage is now permitted. That’s only 11% of the 196 countries in the world – so there’s still a lot of work to do for same-sex couples to be recognised and protected in international law. My partner of eight years is Australian – last Saturday also marked nine years since he came to England. Many people here seem surprised to learn that Australian politics is less progressive than the UK when he tells them that he (and we) have more rights here than we do when we visit his family in Sydney. We would be recognised as a couple for immigration purposes only, We would be recognised as a couple for immigration purposes only, but not as next of kin.