23 September 2015

Civil partnerships: "I want the choice..."

Conversation 1.

"Marriage is the union between a man and a woman."
"Says who?"
"God. The natural law."
"But I'm not religious. We should have a secular society and secular laws. We've had civil marriages and divorce for decades in Scotland. What right do you have to impose your beliefs on me?"
"But think of the children. Marriage is about the procreation and protection of the family."

"Are you suggesting that infertile couples should be prevented from marrying? What about older couples? Marriage must be about more than children."
"Alright then: tradition. For centuries, marriage has been understood - and only understood - as the union between a man and a woman. Not women and women and men and men. We shouldn't set that understanding  - that teaching - aside lightly."
"But why should tradition determine what we do today? Homophobia was also a hallowed tradition in this country for decades. Are you seriously arguing that the prejudices of the dead should govern the living? What kind of authority is that?"

"If I can draw your attention to the definition of marriage in the Oxford English Dictionary, I think you'll find --"
"But you're just avoiding my question. What kind of authority does the dictionary have? Can't concepts change, and evolve? The idea of marriage is just a human construct. Throughout history, you can find plenty of examples of marriages which don't fit your one man one woman model. Just go to Utah. And our understandings of marriage haven't remained static. Until 1991, the traditional definition of marriage made if perfectly legal for a husband to rape his wife. But the law changed. Changed late. And changed for the better."

"I wouldn't disagree with that."
"So where is this eternal, traditional idea of marriage you were defending a moment ago? It is fictional."
"I just don't agree with you. A marriage is between a man and a woman."

Conversation 2.

"It is alright for you. You can get a civil partnership. We can't. It is unequal. Unfair."
"But why do you want a civil partnership anyway? 
"I just don't like the social baggage. Patriarchy. Religion. The idea of marriage just seems to come with many so many traditions, teachings and connotations that I disagree with."
"But hasn't all that changed? We've had civil weddings here for donkey's years. They've got nothing to do with God, or religion, or chattel wives. And just the other year, Holyrood introduced gay marriage. Haven't we moved on from all that stuff?"

"I'm just not confortable with the idea of it."
"But you support equal marriage, right?"
"Oh, absolutely. I'm right behind it. The arguments made against it were ridiculous. Natural law? Marriage doesn't belong to the churches. Of course people should be able to choose to be married. It is about love, isn't it? Forget the history and the tradition. It is about love, now." 
"But you were talking a bit about history before. Isn't the history of civil partnerships pretty dodgy?"
"What do you mean?"

"Well, they were just a stop-gap, weren't they? A softly-softly way of giving LGBT folk a few more rights without pissing off social conservatives? Didn't they just legislate for inequality?" 
"I just want the choice too. I don't see why heterosexual couples shouldn't be afforded the same legal rights and choices as gay couples."
"Oh, I agree. But surely, if we just abolished civil partnerships, then we'd all be equal too? With the same choices and options? Job done?"
"But what about those who've already got civil partnerships? What happens to them?"
"That's a fair question. A good question. But I can't help but notice that you haven't answer mine. Wouldn't abolishing civil partnerships also represent a kind of equality?"

"I just feel a civil partnership would allow me to live a better, fairer life without compromising my beliefs and values, that's all." 
"So is this isn't really about equality at all, is it? It's about the fact you see marriage as a traditional and religious institution. An institutional signalling the subordination of women to men." 
"I want the choice."
"Except, that is, when you're arguing for LGBT couples to be able to marry. Then marriage is all about love."
"It is about choice. I want the choice."


The Scottish Government is coming under some fire in the media this morning over a consultation on the future of civil partnerships in Scotland. Much of the critique is framed in terms of equality. And this has an intuitive appeal. But if we burrow down into the debates, and remember how the campaign for equal marriage was framed just a few years ago, the case for extending civil partnerships beyond same-sex relationships to seems a little odd. 

The rejection of the authority of traditional and religious understandings of marriage were at the heart of the case for the Marriage and Civil Partnership (Scotland) Act in 2014: equal rights, equal recognition, equal respect. Things change, times and understandings change, and the law should reflect that. The idea that marriage is now essentially concerned with love rather than procreation, or religious ideas, or tradition predominated.

By contrast, and perhaps ironically, the Scottish Government's critics today begin to sound rather like the religious and traditionalists advocates who insisted that weddings were only about "Adam and Eve rather than Adam and Steve." They argue for the choice of civil partnerships, in great part because they see marriage as inevitably soaked in reactionary religious and gender norms.  The case for extending civil partnerships seems to be that the churchmen were right in the equal marriage debate of 2014. The concept of marriage really is theirs. So which is it? Has the idea of marriage shed its old skin, or not? 

There is clearly an inequality in the current family law. A decision will have to be taken either to eliminate or to extend civil partnerships. But the heart of the debate is not a question of equality. It is about what distinctive good, if any, an idea of civil partnership can have, in a country were the right to marry is already civil, godless and genderless. What are civil partnerships for?


  1. The whole point of the appeal to "Natural Law" was that it could be deduced from observation of the way "Nature" seemed to function for best results. The scientist studies Nature, the technologist exploits it, e.g. the ability to split the atom (Science) versus the development and use of Nuclear Weapons (Technology). The question above is about the status of couples who do not want to be married, what are their rights and what are their protections legally speaking?

  2. Until the time of Christianity the tradition of marriage was between a man and womEn. In some places it still is. Also it could include close family members. In some places it still does. If it's about choice why shouldn't it? Probably because it's really about the legal relationship between people, their money and the state

    1. Aii: ' Probably because it's really about the legal relationship between people, their money and the state'

      Indeed. Regardless of gender/religious/Trekkie/Dawkinsite ceremonies, we all tend to forget that one day we are going to die, so I would say one very important function is to force partners to look at inheritance issues and sort them out while alive.

      Scottish men in particular seem quite bad at sorting this stuff out in traditional marriages, never mind our modern partnerships.

      I have seen too many family crack ups and deserving people hurt badly, so i would say what the hell, anything that pushes us to recognise that we are mortal and should sort out our affairs while still able to do so is good.

  3. Abolish prospective civil partnerships. Preserve the legal rights of those that still exist. Provide a simple process to allow those in law who want to convert a CP into a marriage so they enjoy the same legal status. Restate the distinction in law publicly between a religious and a civil marriage simply being about the celebrant and launch a consultation on the existence and nature of the two schemes that operate parallel to one another. Take evidence from secular states with no distinction and then legislate if appropriate.

    How is any of that difficult?

    1. "Provide a simple process to allow those in law who want to convert a CP into a marriage so they enjoy the same legal status." I think this now exists under the new legilsation. Certainly the first same sex married couples in Scotland were those who converted their CPs on Dec 16 with the first marriage that was not a conversion happening on 31st Dec.

      "Restate the distinction in law publicly between a religious and a civil marriage" I dont think the Church of Scotland are keen on that idea. They really want their religious ceremonies to have the full civil recognition and dont want a difference seen between the two. This is linked to their belief that they are the National Church.

      "Take evidence from secular states" The French system of being married in the town hall and then having a ceremony would probably be good but religious bodies like to have their ceremony to be both the formal and religious marriage at the same time.

  4. I've always supported the right of all persons to marry. I would never consider doing so myself, and I don't honestly think marriage is a good idea, but everybody should have an equal right to make the wrong decision. Either it should be abolished altogether or it should be open to all. I'm glad the Scottish Parliament settled for the option most likely to make most people happy.

    Civil partnerships are a much more sensible form of union. I think they should be open to everyone.

    How is that contradictory?

    My biggest problem with this legislation isn't actually about this. It's about the fact that the most equitable option offered is that of opening up civil partnerships to 'same sex and opposite sex couples'. When it came to or recently enacted marriage laws, I worked hard to ensure the wording made marriage open to everyone, regardless of gender. That includes non-binary people; trans people who are in the process of changing gender role and don't want to have the wrong thing written on their important documents; and intersex people who may have a different gender from the one they were assigned at birth but be unable to express it in a legal context (due to being explicitly excluded from the provisions of the Gender Recognition Act). I'd hate to see a government which has been groundbreaking in this regard (and is led by a woman who made a personal pledge to stand up for trans and intersex rights less than two weeks ago) take such a regressive step.

  5. It makes sense to retain civil partnerships as a weaker and easier to dissolve form. Something like how the general populace imagined common law marriage to be.
    Just make it a convenient registrar and make provision for children resulting from such relationships. The idea to be that it would be an easy way to give next of kin permission, inheritance etc to another without the implication of permanence, legal red tape or religious sanction. Make this available to gay, straight, whatever. Spain has a system similar to this.

    Perhaps even use it as an opportunity to strengthen marriage rights.

  6. When the New Zealand parliament addressed the issue of Civil Partnerships they took a holistic view and had half an eye on constraining a future conservative government to boot. In NZ Civil Partnerships are open to all LGBTQIS and Asexual to boot. It's a graduated civil contracts system that needs not include a sexual partnership. At the lowest level you merely confer next of kin status on someone.

    The entire civil marriage system was overhauled.

    NZ has also legalised gay marriage. They saw no conflict in doing so despite the entire civil marriage system accommodating it. The point is symbolic.

    Much like how it is not illegal or obscene for a woman to go topless in public in NZ. Not because NZ women are wont to do that but as a point of equality with men. They can do it if they choose to.

    Our NZ born eldest and her partner here in Scotland do not want to tie the knot unless they can get a CP here in Scotland. There is demand for it. Yours not to reason why any more than for Gay marriage or topless Kiwis.