GAY TIMES April 2005

Terry Sanderson’s new autobiography “The Reluctant Gay Activist” is now available on Amazon

So, the vanguard happy couples will be throwing their confetti (registrar permitting, and not many of them do) on 21 December this year. That’s the first date on which it will be feasible to register a same-sex civil partnership in Britain. The law actually comes into effect on 5 December, but there is a fifteen-day notice period. After that you can sign an official document in front of the registrar and two witnesses and then enjoy all the rights and privileges that we have fought for over the past three decades.

If you can’t wait that long to make a start, you can always announce your intentions. If you’ve got the requisite consenting boyfriend, you can get engaged right now, this very minute. That’s what Mark Jones and John O’Connor have done, going fully traditional and announcing it in The Times. The Times, in its turn, made a big number out of it, with a prominent feature about how this was the first same-sex “forthcoming marriage” that had been announced in its columns in the whole of the paper’s 220-year history.

The ad rather grandly reads: “A period of engagement is announced between Mr John Christopher O’Connor and Dr Mark Bryan Jones, both of Islington, London. Following the enactment of the Civil Partnership legislation expected later this year, the couple will announce the time and location of both the civil union and subsequent church blessing ceremonies to interested parties.”

Coincidentally, Dr Jones had already made another announcement in the Times – in 2002 he had promised himself to a woman, but then John came along and… well, the rest is history.

It seems that register offices in Brighton, Newcastle, Liverpool, Birmingham and Camden, north London have already had enquiries from gay couples.

Of course, as far as the tabloids are concerned, it’s celebrity gay weddings they’ll be looking for – especially that of Elton John and David Furnish. These two indicated some time ago that they intend to take advantage of the new law, but all of a sudden there are clouds on the horizon.

For some reason, David Furnish felt it necessary to make a statement on the celebrity website Popbitch that all was well between him and the Rocket Man. Cynical hacks immediately took this to mean that everything was far from well.

Kathryn Knight in The Daily Mail gave voice to the “new rumours” of “tantrums, rows and estrangements” and even that “Sir Elton, famously volatile, had told Furnish to move his things out of the houses in Windsor and London.”

It seems that David is fed up of the long periods of separation that their lifestyles dictate and has been “socialising” rather too freely for Sir Elton’s taste. The pair denied the rumours to The Daily Mail, and I for one hope that all is well between them, and they manage to get through to December to do the deed.

Not, of course, that being civilly partnered is a guarantee that you’ll find enduring happiness or be together till death you do part. In Switzerland, 215 gay and 54 heterosexual couples have taken advantage of the partnership law set up by the canton of Geneva in 2001. About seven per cent of those have now “divorced”.

The Geneva law is mostly symbolic, though, carrying few rights and is open to gay and straight couples alike. It follows that getting separated under the Swiss law is rather simpler than the British version. All that is necessary is that both parties send a letter to the chancellery saying they want to end it, and bob’s your uncle, ariverderci mon amour. It won’t be like that here. As the government repeatedly tells us, with rights come responsibilities, and the separation process under our new law will be very similar to heterosexual divorce.

So, there are no guarantees, but it seems that gay people all around the world are anxious to take the plunge and accept the attendant risks, both emotional and fiscal.

The almighty scrap in the USA about whether gay marriage should be permitted is extremely complicated, with the battles being fought state by state. There are currently 21 states seeking to change their constitutions to make gay marriage impossible. But it isn’t all bad news. An opinion poll from New York showed that 51 per cent of the electorate were in favour of permitting it.

In Canada, the march towards legalising gay marriage seems unstoppable. In Brazil a young lawyer is trying to use a constitutional anomaly to push the Government into granting equal marriage rights to gays, although he anticipates that it could take up to ten years to complete the process.

And in Europe, the Czech government recently rejected – by one vote – a package somewhat similar to the one we are to enjoy in Britain. Its proponents say they will keep trying until they succeed. In Greece, the Government is about to consider – in the face of hysterical religious objections – proposals for a partnership arrangement.

The German government is also looking to extend the partnership scheme that is already in place there – once more in the face of religious resistance. And Spain has promised its gay population that it will get the full Monty – gay marriage – even though the pope has just published a book saying that such arrangements are part of “the ideology of evil”.

In all these places, the fly in the ointment is the church. In Britain, though, there has been an extraordinary complication that has alarmed traditionalists and cheered liberals in the Church of England.

At the Church of England General Synod there had been all kinds of mutterings about homosexuality and the Windsor report. But then it had to be admitted that some gay clergymen may try to take advantage of the civil partnership register and then demand that their partners are recognised by the church.

Certainly, the Reverend Stephen Coles told the Radio 4 religious magazine Sunday that he might enter into a civil partnership and was prepared to go to the European Court of Human Rights if the Church tried to evade its responsibilities to his partner.

The House of Bishops has revealed that it has received a raft of questions about where gay clergy stand in the light of this new legislation, and they will issue a statement later in the year “clarifying” the position.

But nothing is going to be clear about this particular situation. As Andrew Carey wrote in the Church of England Newspaper: “We have a situation whereby in future it will be almost impossible to regard the small number of openly gay relationships amongst the clergy as anomalous and going against official church teaching. Instead, those relationships will have to be officially accepted by the Church of England and supported financially and in other benefits.”

It seems that the civil partnership will solve the Church’s problems for it and the African bishops, with their voodoo-version of Christianity, won’t be able to do a thing about it – except perhaps stick pins in dolls of Tony Blair and Rowan Williams.

And, of course, the Simpsons will not be left out of the equation. If there’s a controversy, you can be sure that Homer and co will send it up.

In an episode to be shown on Sky One in May, entitled “There’s Something about Marrying” Homer becomes an ordained minister through a dubious website. Then Springfield unilaterally legalises same-sex marriage in order to increase tourism, and Homer finds that he can make serious money from officiating at gay nuptials.

When the episode was shown in the USA it caused the usual outcry from the religious right. L. Brent Bozell III, president of the Parents Television Council blasted the Simpsons for tackling the issue of gay marriage. “At a time when the public mood is overwhelmingly against gay marriage, any show that promotes gay marriage is deliberately bucking the public mood. You’ve got a show watched by millions of children. Do children need to have gay marriage thrust in their faces as an issue? Why can’t we just entertain them?”

I sometimes wonder about the sanity of these people. They seem almost infantile in the triviality of the targets they choose – last month Spongebob Squarepants, this month the Simpsons. Aren’t there any serious issues they can concern themselves with – like the war in Iraq or world poverty and starvation?

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