Canadian wives – British civil partners

Illustrated rainbow pride flag on a pink background. Exclusive’s Marc Shoffman meets a lesbian couple determined to be recognised as wives in the UK.

Marriage is currently a big issue in Parliament’s across the globe. UK High Court rulings have set precedents for bigger divorce settlements, and last week the Law Commission recommended rights for unmarried couples, including gays and lesbians, while the US senate is considering a constitutional gay marriage ban and Canada is contemplating repealing its gay marriage laws.

Amid all this litigation, a lesbian couple from a small Yorkshire town is aiming to use the Human Rights Act to have their Canadian gay marriage recognised in the UK, in a case which could ignite the debate on gay marriage in the UK.

“The international context for our claim is not the international context of what is happening now in the US or Canada. The contexts we are drawing parallels with are the South African apartheid regime, interracial marriage bans in the US southern states, and for me very powerfully the Nazi laws preventing Jews marrying ‘Aryans’, because my grandfather was Jewish and my grandmother was not.

“For me those kinds of ways in which marriage prohibits categories of people from marrying other categories of peoples is a really important way in which I think about our case,” said Celia Kitzinger, wife of 52-year-old Sue Wilkinson.

Kitzinger, 49, and Wilkinson, both university professors, who have been together for 16 years, are seeking recognition in the UK of their marriage made in Canada in 2003. They are using the Human Rights Act which guarantees the right to respect for privacy and family life, the right to marry and prohibits discrimination, which Kitzinger describes as “the major thing we can use as lesbians and gays to claim our rights.”

Their case is a huge transition from the world both women grew up in. Kitzinger, a sociology professor, came out when she was 16 and homosexuality was still classified as a mental illness, she spent some months in a mental hospital and was expelled from school. While Wilkinson, a professor in social psychology, had been married to a man for 17 years before the women met in 1985, now we were sitting yards from The Royal Courts of Justice where the couple are this week contesting their marriage rights after they were legally married in Canada almost three years ago.

They married in Vancouver, Canada in August 2003, after marriage was opened up to gay couples in some provinces in that year, when Wilkinson was a visiting professor at the Simon Fraser University. She recalled a “sense of celebration in the community” as they describe the change in laws and how much easier it made the visits and immigration questions for Kitzinger, she said: “I would say I’m staying with a friend, my partner, It made such a difference saying my wife’s here.

“That was the quick and way for solving problems, it wasn’t the only reason, we wouldn’t have done it if we didn’t know the relationship was going to continue.”

The academics joyfully reminisce about rainbow flags and gay marriage signs appearing across Canada, but the mood quickly changed as we addressed their return to the UK in 2004, to find they were no longer considered a married couple.

“I felt insulted and humiliated,” said Kitzinger, referring to no longer being regarded as a married couple.

“Britain felt entirely legitimate about that.”

Wilkinson said: “There was disbelief that having had this fantastic thing given to us, it was gone.”

Their relationship had no legal status until the Civil Partnerships Act was implemented in 2005, when their marriage was converted into a civil partnership.

“It was absolutely unsatisfactory, we made marriage vows,” Kitzinger said.

Wilkinson added, “And we made them in 2003, to suddenly be told you are civil partners as of 2005, no, we are wives as of August 2003.

“We are not knocking civil partnerships, they are a fantastic advance, what we are taking issue with is that our marriage is not recognised as a marriage, and that what the government has done is set up these two parallel institutions and kept the separation between straights and gays.

“A sort of soft apartheid.”

Kitzinger added, “I think they lost the opportunity with civil partnerships because some of my friends say why would you want marriage with the religious connotations, civil partnerships could have offered a reasonable alternative not just for lesbian and gay men but for straight couples.”

The couple has received backing from a cross section of the community including gay rights groups such as Outrage, the Gay and Lesbian Humanist Association, and Egale Canada, political parties such as the Green Party, civil rights group Liberty, the National Secular Society, religious groups including the Metropolitan Community Church and Labour MEP Michael Cashman.

And they are not the only case, other couples are seeking recognition of their Canadian (same sex) marriages in Ireland and Israel.

The support has instilled confidence in the couple, Wilkinson said: “It will make a huge personal difference but obviously it has a whole range of implications, immediately marriages from Belgium, Spain and the Netherlands as well as Canada would immediately be recognised in Britain and then the implication becomes well why not allow marriage for same sex couples in this country?

“Long term I think a win would mean equal access to marriage and civil partnership for everyone.

“If we lose, change is incremental, we could go on and take it to the court of appeal, other couples could bring similar cases, if we don’t win someone else will.”

Kitzinger said: “As with interracial marriage in the American south, apartheid in South Africa, its moving in the right direction

“There are other cases, we are just the first, we will win eventually.”

Wilkinson added: “I think the other thing is the speed of social change, like issues of moving around Europe, and Catholic countries like Spain having gay marriage laws.

“There is an increasing body of same sex couples not willing to accept the fact that their marriage dissolves when they move from one country to another.”

Wilkinson and Kitzinger are clearly not just publicity hungry gay campaigners, their case is more about equality than gay rights. They personify the human effect of a potential gay marriage ban in the US or Canada.

I watch as Wilkinson makes her wife move to ensure she avoids sunburn and casually places sun cream in the middle of the table, they are clearly a caring, loving devoted couple, the neutral observer need only substitute the word homosexual for heterosexual and ask, if this were a straight couple married in Canada, would it be fair to take their marriage away?