Lord Lester’s Civil Partnership Bill may be dead in the water through lack of support from the Government, but it has had a major impact in raising the profile of gay partnerships.
The consensus in the press seems to be in favour of change. Everyone sees the injustices and wants them put right, and the Government agrees. It says it intends to bring forward its own proposals after it has consulted widely across all its departments, and therefore regarded Lord Lester’s effort as “premature”.
The Independent saw this as an excuse for doing nothing, and chided: “The Prime Minister should be ashamed of his cynicism in refusing to bring in a simple law extending the rights of married couples to other people who live together in stable and committed relationships.”
The Observer thought that: “There is an all too clear suspicion that Tony Blair fears taking on the churches and the conservative press over this issue. This thoughtful Bill deserves support from a government modern and courageous enough to acknowledge the way we live now”.
But does Mr Blair have anything to fear from the “conservative press”? The Times carried a most supportive editorial about the Lester Bill, encouraging not only the Government to support it, but the Tories, too. Even The Daily Telegraph is in favour of “extending these humane courtesies” to gay couples (although not via the Lester Bill). Only The Daily Mail is likely to combust on this issue, although thus far it has held its fire.
We will have to wait and see what alternative Mr Blair comes up with, if, indeed, he comes up with anything at all. In the meantime, the battle lines on the religious front are being drawn. Our opponents are familiar and predictable. The Christian Institute has been engaged in one of its spiteful letter-writing campaigns on the Lester Bill (which it accuses of encouraging “counterfeit marriage”), and the bishops in the House of Lords have also signalled that they will fight any “undermining” of holy matrimony, a development that could make Mr Blair even more reticent.
But as Jeanette Winterson pointed out in The Guardian, marriage is not the immutable institution that the church would have us believe. It evolves. “It is because marriage as an institution has been able to change its shape that it has survived at all… If the Tories want to be the practical party, let them admit the changing nature of marriage. Part of that change might be to accept that marriage could include everyone, regardless of their sexuality.”
It seems the Tories are listening and have been making sympathetic noises. Oliver Letwin, the Conservative shadow Home Secretary, for instance, has produced an argument that has certainly made me rethink one aspect of these proposals.
Mr Letwin wrote in The Daily Telegraph of his (and presumably his Party’s) support for the principles of fairness and justice contained in Lord Lester’s Bill. But he felt that by including unmarried heterosexuals, the bill would be offering to them a totally superfluous “pale shadow” of marriage. If heterosexual couples were prepared to sign a Civil Partnership Agreement, why on earth aren’t they prepared to sign a marriage contract? Both would be legally binding, so why create a watered down version of marriage when heterosexuals have the choice to opt for the real thing?
He agreed that homosexual couples were disadvantaged in that marriage is not available to them, and therefore some other kind of legal framework would be needed. But that’s all that was needed. Trying to cater for unmarried heterosexuals in the same Bill simply created vast and unnecessary complications.
Of course, in saying this, he was trying to placate the traditionalist elements in his party. He still, he said, regards the institution of marriage as superior, and something that must be preserved as special.
In many ways I think he is right. I couldn’t care less about all this “sanctity of marriage” bollocks. If the Church wants to think “marriage” belongs to God, then let them get on with it. My only concern is that gay people don’t have to continue suffering the discrimination – both major and minor – that creates such misery and irritation. (If the alternative isn’t officially called “marriage” then so what? We can call it marriage unofficially among ourselves – the church doesn’t have a copyright on the word. And whatever label the politicians come up with, the press will certainly continue to refer to it as “gay marriage” – it takes up less space in the headlines than “Registered Civil Partnerships”.)
In the next stage of the battle, the aim should be for a law that will simply give gay couples the same fiscal rights as married couples. I am convinced by Oliver Letwin’s argument that heterosexuals have a ready-made solution if they really want their partnership to be recognised in law. Or, as Martin Brailli put it in The Independent: “I believe for a small fee and a few minutes effort you [straight couples] can visit a government office and, after answering a few simple questions, be presented with a document which entitles you to all the benefits you are after. You don’t need to invite a lot of guests, wear funny clothes or even tell anyone else what you have done. It seems a very simple way of being able to prove for ever that you are ‘a couple’. We seem to be able to accept in other situations that a written document is necessary proof that we hold a certain status (driving licence, passport), why such a hang-up about obtaining a document to confirm a partnership?”
We all know about the gross injustices that flow from the inability of gays to have their relationships legally recognised – the inheritance implications, the pension discrimination, the lack of next of kin rights and so on, but there are smaller, but no less irksome, grievances.
Terry Sykes, of Ilford, Essex, wrote to The Independent to say that he is currently engaged in a “fierce dispute” with his insurance company because he is forced to pay a higher premium as a ‘single’ person, “even though I have been driving for 30 years and receive full no-claims bonus. The insurers have told me that I am not being discriminated against, but because I am not ‘married’, I lose the married person’s discount. How does the fact that I cannot produce a marriage certificate turn me into a greater driving risk?”
But it is still the issue of children raised by gay parents that causes unease, even among some of our own supporters. The Government is planning to amend its Adoption Bill to make it legal for unmarried couples – including gay couples – to adopt. At the moment it is only permissible for married couples and single people.
Naturally this gets the reactionaries hopping up and down. As we’ve already seen, the Christian Institute has gone into overdrive and is praying itself giddy over this issue.
The Daily Mail’s notorious “Social Affairs Correspondent”, Steve Doughty, says that there is no evidence that this change is needed. He quotes Liv O’Hanlon of Adoption Forum as claiming that changing the rules will not result in more children being adopted. Ms O’Hanlon says: “It is fashionable to try to change the law to include cohabitees. But it means very little to the children who need adoption and couples who would like to do so. Unmarried couples already adopt, but only one of them is listed as the adoptive parent.”
In The Daily Mail, Melanie Phillips was riding the paper’s hobby-horse on the threat to marriage that gay people (and now straight cohabitees) pose. “Let us be absolutely clear what all this will do,” she fulminated. “Despite protestations to the contrary, it will all but destroy the meaning of marriage” and therefore the fabric of society.
“A few children are adopted by single people. This is not the ideal because all children need a mother and a father – which is why gay adoption is not a good idea.”
All children need a mother and father, do they? The implication seems to be that all the tens of thousands of children living in single sex or single parent households are automatically dysfunctional. That is patently untrue. On the contrary, some marriages are so horrific that they should carry an R18 certificate and children shouldn’t be allowed anywhere near them.
The Christian Institute, too, has published a slanderous book called “Children as Trophies?” by “sociologist” Patricia Morgan, which purports to have surveyed 144 academic papers and studies that have claimed that homosexual parenting is of equal value to married couples parenting. The book claims children of gay or lesbian parents are more likely to suffer from “gender confusion” and are more likely to be homosexual themselves. It remains to be seen whether anyone takes any notice of this book, or whether the Christian Institute’s reputation for gross exaggeration drives it into the oblivion it deserves.
And soon it may not even be necessary for lesbian couples to adopt in order to have a child that belongs to both of them. According to a report in The Sunday Times, “Lesbian couples could soon be able to have children who share both their genes using a fertility technique that is being pioneered in America. Doctors would treat cells taken from one woman, turning them into artificial sperm that would fertilise the other woman’s eggs.”
This technique may be available in the US within eighteen months, although there are grave concerns about its safety. If these risks can be overcome, it could have enormous implications for lesbian partners. And create another nightmare for the Christian Institute.