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Gay marriage and civil partnership – the devil’s in the definition

by | 22 February 2014 | Inspiration

In our last gay marriage article, we looked at the ‘whats’, ‘hows’ and ‘whens’ of the new matrimonial options created by the new legislation for England and Wales. Now, it’s time to have a look at the ‘why’ – the subjective, personal reasons why you would choose civil partnership or gay marriage.

The official definitions of both come strapped with reams of legal mumbo jumbo, but let’s forget all the legal stuff for now. The only question of definition that matters here is – what fits best with your idea of a lifelong commitment?

It’s worth noting here that this can be anything – civil partnership and marriage are just two of an infinite set of options. If your idea of a lifelong commitment is fulfilled by personally tattooing your names onto each other’s foreheads, then so be it. Just bear in mind that, in the heat of an argument, it’s quicker to throw a wedding ring at someone than it is to grow a fringe.

Let’s look at some of the different ways the respective institutions of marriage and civil partnership can be viewed.

Civil partnership – alternative or inferior?

Civil partnership is not, as some expected, set to be consigned to cultural and legislative history as the derelict halfway house of marriage equality.

Gay couple toasting with champagne

Indeed, even with marriage as an option, it may well be that civil partnership continues to blossom into a progressive and a popular means of getting hitched without the fuss or baggage of marriage.

The most prominent criticism of civil partnership is that it can be seen a second-rate product, a hollow imitation designed by the government to keep same-sex unions distinct from ‘real’ ones. It’s not a particularly romantic viewpoint – it basically implies that civil partnership is akin to those rip-off cereal brands that have mascots called Snap, Crackle and Dave on the box.

This argument should be a bit redundant now though, because the arrival of marriage equality means that civil partnership now has a fundamentally different function. It’s an option in its own right now, as opposed to just being the best thing available.

There are reasons to wonder though whether, in practice, this view will ever become genuine public consensus.

For example, when the gay marriage bill was first passed for England and Wales, many people, including some newspapers, immediately started referring to the option of ‘upgrading’ from civil partnership.

It sounds innocuous enough, but ‘upgrading’ is a seriously loaded term here. It still hints at a general acceptance of a matrimonial hierarchy that considers marriage to be fundamentally ‘better’ than civil partnership, despite the almost total legal parity. If this perception persists then, like it or not, the supposed equality between marriage and civil partnership doesn’t quite exist in practice.

Marriage – traditional or out of date?

Marriage is an inherently religious institution. We know we’re stating the obvious here, but with religion comes an endless scope for different interpretations of what a lifelong commitment should be.

There are a huge amount of ways in which your religious or spiritual beliefs could influence your choice of commitment, especially since the relationship between religion and homosexuality has been, let’s say, contentious throughout history. No one knows your faith and spirituality better than you though, so we will simply acknowledge this as a major factor and move swiftly on.

Two women getting married

© Nastynegs –

Religion aside, there are plenty of strong ideological reasons why you might not care for marriage. Marriage is often seen as a highly patriarchal institution. If you are a feminist (of either gender) then you may see marriage as an institution that, through the ages, has reinforced values of male dominance that society has sought to outgrow.

It’s also worth noting that – here’s where the discussion swings back to definitions again – if you type ‘define marriage’ into Google, it will still refer to it being between ‘a man and a woman’. This is another factor that is purely about your own opinion – this may irk you beyond belief, or you may not give two hoots about it. Neither reaction is right or wrong.

Much of the power of marriage come through its perceived tradition, and tradition is a powerful force. The institution of marriage is so deeply ingrained in the fabric of society and culture that even changes to law can leave society and industry slow to adapt. For this reason, it’s important to know where legislation land ends and practical reality begins, because sometimes fault lines can appear.

We heard a really good example of this from James at Stonewall, the LGBT lobbying charity that we spoke to for our last gay marriage article. James said:

“Some companies, like insurance firms and public sector, have been slow to recognise civil partnerships.”

“I heard a story in the past six months from someone who went to Accident and Emergency and was asked ‘are you married or are you single?’ to which he said ‘no, I’m in a civil partnership’.”

“The hospital staff told him that he would have to be registered on their system as single because that didn’t count as marriage.”

Cases like this will obviously fade away over time, but it’s a reminder that a change in law has to be followed by a ripple effect throughout industry, society and culture, which takes time. You can’t always have a lawyer by your side to reiterate the legal strength of your civil partnership.

Gay marriage and civil partnership are, in terms of legal rights and cake consumption, virtually identical. But with all the talk of legislation, laws and reforms, it’s worth giving some thought to the more subjective factors at play. Because you’re the one making the commitment and only you can decide which option will make you happiest.

About the author

Matt Phil Carver

Matt’s a copywriter and blogger from West Sussex, England. He spends his days helping people simplify their writing and give their words more punch and personality. At weddings, Matt’s always quick to get up and dance, even when the vicar’s telling him to wait for the reception.


Inspiration Gay marriage and civil partnership – the devil’s in the definition