Civil partnerships, first introduced in the UK in 2005, allowed same-sex couples legal and social recognition and have been a resounding success, with over 60,000 couples formed. So why would same-sex couples want access to marriage instead? For some, civil partnerships are inadequate because they represent a stigmatised status. At the same time, same-sex couples, who can choose between a marriage and a civil partnership, enjoy a wider range of options than do opposite-sex couples. Mike Thomas looks at the legacy of civil partnerships and the advent of same-sex marriages.

Last month, lesbian and gay couples celebrated the first same-sex marriages in England and Wales, following implementation of the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act, 2013. Just ten years on from civil partnerships, is marriage equality an acknowledgement of their success or an admission that they provide an inadequate substitute for marriage? With the UK government considering the future of civil partnerships – including whether to get rid of them altogether – it is worth taking stock of what civil partnerships have achieved, and whether they have a viable future.

In numerical terms, civil partnerships have been an unqualified success. Some 60,000 lesbian and gay couples have formed civil partnerships since they were introduced in 2005, roughly three times the level of take-up forecast by the government when they were first considered. I’ve researched civil partnerships as part of a study of legal recognition for same-sex couples in the UK, Canada and the US, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council. One of the key findings from my research is that couples in civil partnerships value the set of legally enforceable rights and entitlements available to them, whether in terms of property rights, strengthening parental rights or being recognised as a couple for immigration purposes.

Although they fill a significant policy gap in recognising same-sex couples in law, it would be wrong to think about civil partnerships as an entirely legal enterprise. Civil partnerships have also helped integrate same-sex couples within families and communities, not least by providing opportunities for couples to organise ceremonies and enable families, friends and neighbours to celebrate the couple’s relationship.  This aspect of civil partnership – as a means of cementing social bonds and acknowledging same-sex couples within family and friendship networks – has been a key motivating factor for some couples.

same-sex marriage

With civil partnerships ticking a number of boxes in terms of legal and social recognition, we should consider why same-sex couples might want access to marriage instead. There are clues to this in the UK government’s recent consultation on the future of civil partnerships, which describes marriage as the bedrock of our society. Whether or not we agree with putting marriage on this kind of pedestal, it is clear that civil partnerships do not rival the cultural power and significance of marriage. We are socialised to understand marriage as a significant life-event, right from the fairy stories we are told as young children. Most of us can relate to marriage, or at least understand what it is.

In comparison, civil partnership sounds clinical and bureaucratic, and is relatively unfamiliar. One couple I interviewed for my research had the awkward task of explaining to an hotelier what a civil partnership was when they went to book their reception.  Part of the problem with establishing civil partnership as an alternative legal or social status lies in its broad similarity with marriage. As experience of civil partnerships has shown, if something looks like marriage and sounds like marriage, then we are likely to end up calling it a marriage. And, of course, the language we use around marriage and weddings trips easily off the tongue, whereas civil partnerships present us with dilemmas around whether or not we call them marriages, and how we describe the civil partners (do bride and groom, stags and hens fit the bill?). It also sounds more meaningful or at least intelligible for a same-sex couple to say they’re getting married rather than entering into a civil partnership.

For some, civil partnerships, originally developed as an alternative status to marriage, will be inadequate because they represent a stigmatised status, reserved for same-sex couples on a ‘separate but equal’ basis. On the other hand, some might see the novelty of civil partnership as an advantage, as an opportunity to carve out a new status without the baggage that goes with marriage. Some gay or lesbian couples, particularly those with feminist or queer commitments, are likely to be appalled at the idea of being married, and might see civil partnership as a preferable option; as a blank page, free of the stains of patriarchal marriage traditions. Of course, others would reject the idea of state recognition or approval of their couple relationship entirely, though civil partnerships and now marriage equality appear to have kicked a more transformative approach to recognising intimate relationships even further into the long grass.

A public consultation by the UK government on the future of civil partnership closed recently. The consultation put forward a set of options, including getting rid of civil partnerships altogether and converting existing civil partnerships to marriages, closing civil partnerships to new entrants, keeping civil partnerships available for same-sex couples only, or opening up civil partnerships to opposite-sex couples. The policy response to the consultation will be interesting. Abolishing civil partnerships or closing them to new entrants just ten years on would suggest that they’ve fulfilled their purpose as a stepping-stone to marriage equality. However, consigning civil partnerships to the scrapheap is unlikely to satisfy those lesbian and gay couples who have been persuaded to enter civil partnerships as an apparently enduring response to their needs. Maintaining the status quo might seem a more reasonable option, allowing same-sex couples to continue to choose between civil partnerships or marriage.

An unintended consequence of the current position is that same-sex couples enjoy a wider range of options than opposite-sex couples, who are currently excluded from access to civil partnerships. The government could level the playing field by opening civil partnerships to opposite-sex couples, though this would mean presentational dilemmas, particularly for a Conservative-led government that might be sensitive to accusations of undermining marriage by providing heterosexual couples with an alternative status. Opening up civil partnerships to heterosexual couples could also provide a means of extending legal recognition to cohabiting couples who are unwilling to get married and currently have no alternative available to them. In any case, access to civil partnerships for heterosexual couples is unlikely to mean the end of marriage as we know it. Statistical evidence from the Netherlands, where marriage and registered partnerships are available to same- and opposite-sex couples on an equal basis shows that marriage is by far the preferred option for heterosexual and homosexual couples alike.

So what can we make of civil partnerships ten years on? It may be tempting to see them as little more than a softening-up exercise for full marriage equality; as a short-term measure designed to bring lesbian and gay couples more gradually into the public sphere and make the idea of same-sex marriage more acceptable. Certainly, it is hard to imagine full marriage equality getting through the UK Parliament back in 2004, and although government ministers’ assurances at the time about civil partnerships being ‘distinct’ from marriage now appear disingenuous, they were an important factor in addressing political opposition in 2004.

The advent of same-sex marriages in England and Wales in 2014, with Scotland due to follow, means that we should perhaps see civil partnerships as falling victim to their own success. Perhaps the true test of civil partnerships lies in the experience of gay and lesbian couples whose lives have been changed for the better by securing important legal rights and taking the opportunity to celebrate their couple relationships with friends and family. At the same time it would be misleading to overstate the impact of civil partnerships. Although attitudes towards homosexuality continue to improve, data from the British Social Attitudes Survey show that there is still a significant minority who see same-sex relationships as unacceptable. So although we should acknowledge the contribution that civil partnerships have made towards recognising same-sex couples, both in law and in society, we should continue to resist the idea that somehow we’re all equal now as a result of same-sex marriage.

Note:  This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the British Politics and Policy blog, nor of the London School of Economics. Please read our comments policy before posting.  Image credit: Matt Buck

About the Author

Dr Mike Thomas is a Lecturer in Social Work in the School of Social Policy, Sociology and Social Research at the University of Kent. 

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