Civil partnerships and marriages
Overall, the personal stories generated by our study highlight how, in practice, civil partnership can be understood as a form of marriage.
Despite the fact that civil partnership is technically distinct from marriage, the majority of partners viewed themselves as married and had taken to ‘marriage’ like ducks to water. Of the 100 partners, 74 saw and presented themselves as married. It is not that they were unaware of the legal distinction between civil partnership and marriage, but for the most part they deemed the distinction to be insignificant. The general tendency was to use the terms interchangeably, with the emphasis being on the fact that they saw themselves as married:
Diego (208b): actually I felt that being in a civil partnership,
or being married – I don’t necessarily distinguish between the two, I don’t really see the point […]
Jan (208a): we use them interchangeably.
I do tend to use them interchangeably but I know that really, you know in the eyes of the state they’re not necessarily the same thing but that’s pretty much how we see it. So yeah, yeah so we use them interchangeably.
I mean civil partnership it’s a mouthful. Marriage comes right out. Rolls off the tongue.
For some partners, like Sara, the language of civil partnership was cumbersome. It was easier to describe yourself as married rather than ‘civilly partnered’, and to refer to your husband, wife or spouse as opposed to ‘civil partner’ in everyday interactions. ‘Partner’ on its own was viewed as too vague. Even if people understood the term to refer to an intimate relationship, and not a business one, it did not signify the loving and committed nature of the relationship in the way marriage did. In everyday contexts, using ‘civil partnership’ to describe the relationship seemed too technical and obtuse, whereas marriage needed little explanation. More important, for many, was the fact that they did not see their civil partnership and relationship as marriage-like: as far as they were concerned they were married. Generally speaking, this was confirmed by the couples’ close and broader circles:
But the thing is I think in my experience of being a gay man entering into civil partnership, I think most of my friends, the people that I’d discussed it with, were also referring to it […] as getting married.
If you’re already out to the person and you say you’re getting married to your girlfriend, I think everybody knows what that means. Very few people I’ve met have a problem with [using the words] marriage or wedding about gay people.
What makes these stories historically distinctive is the extent to which young same-sex couples’ narratives of being married are encouraged and supported by their personal and broader social networks. Also, unlike previous generations of non-heterosexuals, the young partners saw little or no differences between their relationships and formalised heterosexual marriages in terms of what they involved in day-to-day living. As Sara (121b), quoted earlier, remarked: ‘I just think that we were both raised with parents who were married and we’ve been around people who are married and we consider we have a marriage’. Most partners believed that civil partnership gave them full recognition and protection in line with heterosexual married couples. In this respect, civil partnership and marriage were different ‘only in name’. For most, the legal distinction was insignificant, as Jorge recounted:
some people ask me ‘oh don’t you, mind, that it’s not called marriage’ but we’ve never really felt it […] maybe it’s discriminatory but I’ve never felt it that way […] we’ve never really ever felt discriminated against in that it [is] a civil partnership and not full marriage, the rights are the same, only the name.
Only 15 out of 100 partners did not see themselves as married on the basis of the technical distinction between civil partnership and marriage. Of these, seven partners viewed the distinction as a good thing: they did not want marriage because they saw it as intrinsically linked to plans for having children or as rooted in religion. As Ben (210a) put it:
[I] don’t have a problem with – in fact I positively think that civil partnership is a good thing […] I see marriage as being one thing, I see civil partnership as being another thing – the important thing for me was they had the same legal status and they afford the same rights and the name actually is quite healthy, as a different name. I mean marriage carries with it a lot of connotations including a lot of religious connotations.
Ben’s comments illustrate the striking way in which partners who supported the distinction between civil partnerships and marriage were not explicitly critical of marriage as a heterosexual institution. Eight of those who did not see themselves as fully married wanted formal marriage: two on religious grounds and the remaining six on the basis that the distinction did not reflect the realities that same-sex and heterosexual committed relationships were the same. In these senses, civil partnership was ‘second class’. Doris (104a), who saw her ‘real’ marriage as dating from the religious commitment ceremony she and her coparent (Maria, 104b) entered into before civil partnership was available, recounted:
It’s our relationship and they call it a civil partnership and we feel it’s a marriage […] that was why I was against civil partnerships in the first place ’cause it’s not marriage, if it was marriage then just call it marriage but it’s not, it’s something else, it’s less than that.
As well as the two partners who expressed discontent with the distinction between civil partnership and marriage on religious grounds, four people were unhappy with the fact that they could not hold their ceremonies in a church. However, this was not on the basis of strong religious belief as such but was linked to a sense of exclusion from the ‘traditions’ associated with marriage and because church weddings would have been easier and cheaper to organise. Mark (203a) and Callum (203b) were one such couple:
Callum: I said I would never get married unless I got married in
a church and when I realised that through research after research, eye wracking, eye hurting stuff, I realised that it would never change in a church ’cause I always want to be recognised, not as a gay man getting married but as another human being getting married, like a straight couple, like a man gets married to a woman and they can have this big church service and choir and everything and that’s what I wanted, but we decided, yeah.
Mark: To settle for the ship.
Ten people were highly ambivalent or unsure what they thought about the legal distinction between civil partnership and marriage. However, whether they viewed it as marriage or not, the majority (77) seemed more-or-less fully content with current arrangements for recognising
same-sex relationships. Given that the majority viewed themselves as already married, it was unsurprising that only two brought up their intention to formally marry if the opportunity presented itself in the future. Others were unlikely to go through the ‘whole thing’ again:
The whole thing was a big job. We’re not getting married again.
Oh, it’s far too stressful.
Yeah, it was just months and months of hyperorganisation.
In discussing same-sex marriage in the context of the contemporary politics of sexuality, kinship and family, Butler (2002) has argued that it is a topic that requires double thinking: it is both important and risky as a political strategy. It is a topic that requires even more multiple ways of thinking when same-sex marriage is viewed from the perspective of lives on the ground. This is especially the case when we consider that while civil partnership and marriage are not one and the same in law, civil partnerships and civil unions are often seen and lived as a form of marriage in everyday lives. Despite the historical links between the institution of marriage, institutionalised heterosexuality and marginalised homosexualities, many same-sex couples are now actively deploying the linguistic and social conventions associated with marriage in actively making the nature of their commitments intelligible to themselves and others, actively claiming their ordinariness and actively structuring their relationships in interaction with others. On the one hand, this deployment of convention has radical implications for disrupting the heterosexual panorama and destabilising ideologies of gender and sexual difference with respect to marriage. On the other hand, the risks of deploying convention in this way are that non-heterosexual commitments, claims to ordinariness and relational structuring are understood as an issue of parity with heterosexual marriage. This potentially shores up the idea of the couple as the natural focus of adult relational commitments and makes its personal, social and legal privileging seem inevitable. Also, while the effort and agency that same-sex couples put into claiming and creating ordinary marriages could be seen as a commitment to the life-politics of relational and sexual choice, they risk making invisible the social and cultural dynamics that make couple-centred lives seem like an ‘obvious’ and ‘natural’ choice. The challenge that
personal stories of civil partnership and ‘ordinary’ marriages present for multiple ways of thinking stems partly from the ways in which they seem to emerge ‘naturally’ from embedded lives on the ground. In the following section we offer some examples of this.