The evolution of marriage and civil partnerships – a welcome change?

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Last week, on the 2nd of October, at the Conservative Party Conference, Prime Minister Theresa May announced that civil partnerships would no longer be limited to only same-sex couples. All couples, including mixed-sex ones, can now opt for a civil partnership instead of a marriage.

The decision follows a high-profile case this summer in the British Supreme Court, brought forward by the heterosexual couple Rebecca Steinfeld and Charles Keidan, which argued that restricting civil partnerships to same-sex couples was discriminatory. Civil partnerships were first introduced for same-sex couples in 2004, following years of campaigning by the LGBTQ+ community for marriage equality. At that time, marriages were not available to same-sex couples, a reality which persists till today in Northern Ireland.

Mixed-sex couples have pushed for the right to have civil partnerships as an alternative to marriage, which some view as outdated, patriarchal and problematic. Steinfeld and Keidan stated that “marriage treated women as property for centuries” and that “a civil partnership – a modern, symmetrical institution – sets the best example for [their children]”. Civil partnerships confer inheritance, property and pension rights, among other benefits.

Though unintended, the Government’s move may also benefit individuals who do not fit the gender binary. Currently, the UK currently does not allow individuals to opt for a legal gender beyond the two options ‘M’ and ‘F’. Elsewhere, a handful of countries, such as Australia and India, do allow a legal third option in some form. Non-binary individuals in the UK who are not allowed to change their legal gender to a third option may thus benefit, in certain specific contexts, from a newfound freedom to choose between marriage and a civil partnership.

Theoretically, transgender men and women in homosexual relationships may stand to gain as well. The process of changing one’s legal gender in the UK is, at present, challenging for trans people, who face obstacles such as the costs of gender-affirming surgery as well as needing to exaggerate their gender identity to doctors to prove the validity of their trans identity. Transmen and transwomen who have not yet changed their legal gender, or who face significant issues in doing so, may now be able to enter a civil partnership with their same-gender partner before changing their legal gender. Before May’s decision, civil partnerships could not continue if only one party wanted to change their legal gender, since such a couple would no longer be a same-sex one from a purely legal perspective. Presumably, all transmen and transwomen now have greater freedom to change their legal gender both after marrying and after entering a civil partnership.

Though unintended, the Government’s move may also benefit individuals who do not fit the gender binary.

The decision to grant all couples the right to a civil partnership has not been without opposition. James Mildred, representing the charity Christian Action Research & Education, characterised the move as an attack on marriage. Mildred stated that marriage was “the gold standard of commitment”, and suggested that May’s move would “just further undermine marriage.” However, other pro-marriage groups have come out in support. The Marriage Foundation argued that heterosexual couples in civil partnerships would be “infinitely preferable to unthinking and risky cohabitation.”

Surprisingly, dissatisfaction with the decision has also emerged from those coming from non-conservative, anti-tradition backgrounds. Shelley Silas, a gay playwright and activist, bitterly points out that mixed-sex couples did little to help the gay community win marriage equality. Since civil partnerships were won by the gay community, Silas suggests it is unfair that mixed-sex couples who did nothing for that right can now enjoy it. “We did the work for you,” she stated, “and now you can reap the rewards. So if I am angry and grizzly, allow me to be, because my very tired voice has allowed yours to be heard.”

Regardless of one’s views on the move, and on marriage as an institution, what can be agreed upon is that the face of marriage and civil partnerships is changing. Society’s understanding and assessment of these two institutions is plural, at times contradictory, and continue to evolve. Marriage as an institution, in this country and beyond, has a terribly long history, but the decision to resist or affirm history and tradition is one that rests squarely on we who inhabit present time.

What is perhaps concerning for the LGBTQ+ community is the fact that the Supreme Court had ruled, in June, that restricting civil partnerships to same-sex couples was discriminatory. Recalling that civil partnerships were invented as a direct response to the unequal situation that same-sex couples had faced, the very affirmation that heterosexual couples were being discriminated against is troubling. Society, despite recent progress, is still very much heteronormative, such that heterosexual individuals and couples enjoy systematic benefits and advantages by virtue of being heterosexual, benefits and advantages which are not enjoyed by queer individuals. The idea of “discrimination” against heterosexual couples is thus a risible one. Beyond that, one worries that it may lead to a slippery slope for other cases of perceived “discrimination” against heterosexual individuals. Yet, perhaps the matter of marriages and civil partnerships, with its convoluted history, is a unique one that will not invite such a slippery slope.

What is perhaps concerning for the LGBTQ+ community is the fact that the Supreme Court had ruled, in June, that restricting civil partnerships to same-sex couples was discriminatory.

Beyond marriage and civil partnership, this issue has also reflected a change and a discrepancy in ideas about gender. It is worthwhile comparing how the term “mixed-sex couples” has been used by some sources, such as The Guardian, while the more traditional term “opposite-sex couples” has been used by others like The Telegraph. Even within the same newspaper, such as The Guardian, there exists a glaring inconsistency in the choice between the two. It is a subtle difference that betrays a corresponding difference in one’s worldview concerning gender. The term “opposite-sex” assumes that men and women are opposed to each other in some sense and reinforces the rigid, age-old binary of men versus women. On the other hand, “mixed-sex” suggests a more progressive understanding of gender that does not necessarily support the gender binary, as well as possibly allowing space for non-binary genders in one’s worldview.

As beliefs on civil partnerships and marriages change, so too do beliefs on gender and sex. One hopes that such evolution will follow a trajectory that is ultimately inclusive of all trans and queer individuals.