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Civil partnership and marriage

As same-sex marriages become legal, research shows civil partnerships could never meet demand for full equality.

As same-sex couples in England and Wales prepare to get legally married on 29 March, research from Dr Mike Thomas of the University shows that civil partnerships could never have met the demand for full equality between gay and straight couples.

Dr Thomas, Lecturer in Social Work within School of Social Policy, Sociology and Social Research, suggests that civil partnerships were a useful 'stepping stone' - but would always have been a poor substitute for marriage.

The Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC)-funded project found that many same sex couples in the UK welcomed the introduction of civil partnerships in 2005, as they provided them with much-needed legal rights and made them feel more included and recognised by society.

But other couples felt that civil partnerships failed to have the same meaning as marriage. The words 'civil partnership' were unfamiliar, sounded bureaucratic and lacked the social status and cultural meanings that went with marriage. People weren't sure whether they could say they were getting married, or whether they had to awkwardly say they were getting 'civilly partnered'. In the early days, some couples even had to explain to family members, hoteliers and caterers what a civil partnership was when booking their ceremony.

Writing in the latest edition of the ESRC magazine, Society Now, Dr Thomas said: ‘Marriage is engrained in law, culture and social rituals, and it was a tall order for civil partnerships to gain social and cultural standing alongside such a key institution.

'Civil partnerships looked like a fairly bold move back in 2005, but they already appear inadequate as a long-term solution, as reflected in the government's decision to legislate for marriage equality.'

The government is currently consulting on whether to abolish civil partnerships, open them up to straight couples, or keep them as they are.

However, Dr Thomas said that although civil partnerships may well be pushed aside by same-sex marriage, it is important not to overlook the contribution they made towards the greater visibility of same-sex couples in UK society - and to challenging negative social attitudes towards homosexuality.

'Civil partnerships performed an important role in providing legal rights and increasing the visibility of same-sex couples,' he said.

'Setting up a parallel status to marriage was probably never going to work in the long term because marriage is such an important social and cultural institution. However without civil partnerships we wouldn't have got to same-sex marriage in 2014, so if we think about civil partnerships as a stepping stone to fuller equality, they have done their job.'


Story published at 2:06pm 28 March 2014

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Last Updated: 23/05/2013