Comment: The struggle for relationship equality is not over – it’s time to open civil partnerships to all

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Charles Keidan and Rebecca Steinfeld write for PinkNews on the arguments for keeping civil partnerships, ironing out the lingering inequalities between same and opposite-sex marriages, and why we need to open civil partnerships to all to achieve full relationship equality.

Today, another milestone has been reached on the long and difficult road to full marriage equality: same-sex couples in civil partnerships wishing to convert these into marriages can now do so. Legalising same-sex marriage was the recognition that everyone is of equal worth and has the right to equal treatment under the law. The social significance and symbolism of opening marriage to same-sex couples cannot be overstated. We campaigned vigorously for equal marriage and wish those couples now entering into one a hearty mazal tov!

But, as the celebrations start, it’s important to remember that, sadly, full equality has still not yet been achieved. Six aspects of discrimination remain, including the so-called “quadruple lock” legislation explicitly banning the Churches of England and Wales from performing religious same-sex marriages, and discrepancies in pension inheritance rights between same- and opposite-sex married couples.

Another prominent inequality is the continued prohibition on opposite-sex couples’ access to civil partnerships. This is an issue that we care deeply about. When we decided to formalise our commitment to each other last year – on our third anniversary in the snow-capped Pyrenees – we wanted to express it in a way that reflected our values. Like many long-term cohabiting couples, we already saw ourselves as partners, and we thought an official civil partnership would perfectly capture the essence of our relationship.

However, the law continues to bar access to civil partnerships to opposite-sex couples. Consequently, when we sought to give “notice of intention” to form a civil partnership at Chelsea Old Town Hall in October, we were refused by the registrar, explicitly on the basis of our genders and sexual orientation. Not the types to take this discrimination lying down, we decided to launch a petition asking Nicky Morgan, the Minister for Women and Equalities, to open civil partnerships to all. We have also begun legal proceedings and a fundraising drive.

Some in the LGBTQI community might wonder why opposite-sex couples even want civil partnerships, perceiving them as a second-class institution created by the government to forestall same-sex couples’ access to marriage. We understand that position. But civil partnerships look very different from a gender equality perspective. For those who see themselves as feminists, civil partnerships represent an appealing modern social institution, free from the patriarchal baggage, and gendered provisions and social expectations associated with marriage. Since we launched our campaign, we have been inundated with messages of support from women expressing exactly these concerns. As Gemma Daly explained, “I want to be recognised as my partner’s ‘partner’, not a ‘wife’” while Shiva Riahi said, “heterosexuals who … do not want the patriarchal history of marriage … shouldn’t have to choose between that and having equal protection under the law.”

Others in the LGBTQI community might want to keep civil partnerships as an exclusively same-sex option – a bespoke, special and unique institution established for and available to only homosexual couples. But that logic of exclusivity is dangerous. And it is incompatible with equality. Just think about how the same arguments were used to deny marriage equality to same-sex couples. If civil partnerships are reserved for same-sex couples then it is harder to counter the logic that marriage is exclusively between one man and one woman. Thankfully, in the UK at least, that “separate but equal” argument has been well and truly defeated.

Prominent advocates for same-sex marriage, like gay rights and human rights activist Peter Tatchell, who set up the Equal Love campaign, recognise the necessity of opening civil partnerships to opposite-sex couples in order to close the equality circle. The public too supports opening up civil partnerships: In 2012, in response to the government’s consultation on same-sex marriage, 76,588 people (61% of respondents) supported extending civil partnerships to opposite-sex couples. This mirrors the enthusiastic public response to our effort to become civil partners, which has surpassed expectations. In only three days, over 400 people signed our petition and contributed £3,000 to our legal fund. Dozens have sent messages of support and offers of help. Even critics have ultimately concluded that it doesn’t make sense to prevent opposite-sex couples from accessing civil partnerships. It’s just common sense that this is the right thing to do now.

Alongside the public support, there is also political support for opening up civil partnerships. The Liberal Democrats, a part of the governing coalition, passed a resolution in 2010 calling on the government to open civil partnerships to all. Jo Swinson, a progressive Liberal Democrat Minister, is now based in the Government Equalities Office, where she could make good on this resolution. And a current cross-party Private Members Bill proposes an amendment to the Civil Partnership Act 2004 to enable opposite-sex couples to become civil partners.

Sadly, the Government Equalities Office, the very body responsible for eliminating inequality, has so far refused to act or even acknowledge this obvious inequality. It counters that there is no consensus on extending civil partnerships to opposite-sex couples, citing a much smaller 2014 consultation to justify maintaining the very inequality they were established to end. But this does not stand up to scrutiny.

We hope that political leaders will back this simple and just amendment. But as with the struggle for same-sex marriage, hope alone may not suffice. Instead, significant legal, public and political pressure may be needed. So, just as we supported the campaign for equal marriage, we ask for your help in bringing about equal civil partnerships. We have put together a superb legal team, led by solicitor Louise Whitfield, who helped keep women on UK bank notes. Please consider signing our petition and contributing to our fundraising campaign so that we can put equal civil partnerships on the statute book. In so doing, we will take another step on the long road to making Britain a fairer and more equal society.

Charles Keidan is a researcher and writer about charitable giving and philanthropy. He tweets @charleskeidan

Dr Rebecca Steinfeld is a political scientist researching the politics of reproduction and the body. She tweets @beccasteinfeld