Marriage Rights: Trying to be Civil

In an opposite-sex relationship and fancy a civil partnership? Tough luck. Here's why you should be furious, and what campaigning couple Rebecca Steinfeld and Charles Keidan are doing about it

Feature by Kate Pasola | 30 Apr 2015

Once upon a time, I got dumped within my first month of university. I became a heartbroken shambles, sobbing undesirably into my ex’s school hoodie (it was emblazoned with his surname and hadn’t left my torso for a large proportion of Freshers’ – probably a gesture of my unyielding commitment.)

Then, my older sister – a dreamboat feminist and my platinum-haired icon – performed an intervention. She allowed me to spill apocalyptic tears over spaghetti bolognaise and Earl Grey, before asking smoothly if I’d ever heard of Simone DeBeauvoir… or Judith Butler? ...Virginia Woolf? Sensing she was in elementary feminist territory, she popped a copy of Caitlin Moran’s How to Be a Woman under my arm the next morning and instructed me to go home and read.

A week later, my dumper encountered a bout of break-up regret. Meanwhile, I turned my phone on silent and felt a tiny feminist phoenix flap its wings, asking me why the fresh hell I’d been wearing his surname on my back for the past month.

...Cue an omnibus of feminist epiphanies, utterly perplexing to my parents. Why was I so disparaging of Snog Marry Avoid nowadays? Why must I argue with relatives at garden parties about nipples? But the tip of the feministberg was my declaration that I’d only ever get married for the legal rights and tax breaks. And, of course, so I could intoxicate everyone I know and have the opportunity to hire an Elvis impersonator. My mother was disgraced by my disregard for matrimonial tradition.

That was when I realised – no matter how fruitfully you transform the patriarchal institution of marriage into a feminestival of equality, there’s always explaining to be done. Explaining to the father-in-law why I didn’t change my surname to his. Explaining to my dad why I won’t let him 'give me away.' Explaining to the Elvis impersonator my rewriting of the line “you may now kiss your bride.” I want something else. I want a civil partnership.

“Civil partnerships are a blank canvas stripped of patriarchal norms. The catch? They're not open to opposite-sex couples. Yet”

Legalised in 2004 as a form of partnership open to same-sex couples, civil partnerships are a blank canvas stripped of expectation and patriarchal norms. Couples are considered partners, not husband and wife. Both parents of the parties are acknowledged on the certificate, rather than writing women out of history since the beginning of time. There’s no obligation to utter any sort of sacred words unless you choose to, it’s just a matter of signing on the dotted line. And about surnames? In marriage, if a husband wants to take his wife’s name, it’s more of a costly and lengthy process. With civil partnerships, you can just pick the best name (or play rock paper scissors), and be done with it – at no extra cost.

The catch? They’re not available to opposite-sex couples. Yet. And that’s where Rebecca Steinfeld and Charles Keidan come into the equation. The couple have adopted the cause from the Peter Tatchell Foundation, who originally campaigned for it alongside the battle for same-sex marriage. When the same-sex marriage was finally legalised in 2014, opposite-sex civil partnerships were left behind. Tatchell implored the government to gauge public interest for new legislation; in 2012, Cameron submitted. Rebecca and Charles told me that the consultation found 78,556 people in support of updated legalisation – 61% of respondents. So why didn’t things change?

Oddly, the government asked the question once again in 2014. “Only 8,082 people were opposed to extending civil partnerships. But since this constituted 76%, the government used these figures to justify doing nothing... This seemed wrong to us. So we decided to act,” Rebecca and Charles told me. “Opening civil partnerships to all, regardless of sexual orientation, is the right thing to do. It would uphold the principle that everyone is equal under the law and it would benefit those couples, families and children who are currently without legal rights and protections.”

But why do the Tories have such beef with opposite-sex partnerships? David Cameron has been quoted and requoted on his frets that new legislature might undermine traditional marriages. Does he have a point? Rebecca and Charles don’t think so; “Giving opposite-sex couples that same choice would not undermine marriage; rather, it would strengthen it, elevating marriage to a real choice rather than a route to attain legal rights.” They also told me that in countries such as the Netherlands, where an equivalent to opposite-sex civil partnerships exist, the majority of couples continue to opt for the traditional option anyway. That in mind, it's hard to understand why Cameron's perspective is so precious. 

I decided to email Nicky Morgan, Minister for Women and Equalities for a second opinion. Sadly I only received a response from her assistant, Luke Tryle. He dryly confirmed no changes were in the pipeline, as quoted from an unspecified 'Conservative Spokesperson.' Even Luke didn’t fancy getting involved.

So what’s the plan? “We expect a ruling on the legality of the government’s unequal system of access to civil partnerships sometime in autumn 2015. After that, the matter will go to Parliament, which will have to act in line with the court’s ruling. In the meantime, we are assembling evidence to strengthen the case, gathering more petition signatures and further funding for our legal costs.”

The couple hold high hopes, as the current situation seems pretty much an indefensible violation of human rights. According to expert Prof. Robert Wintemute, the European Convention on Human Rights requires that the government shows ‘particularly convincing and weighty’ reasons for maintaining the current status quo, especially now that same-sex couples may marry. "This is a heavy burden of proof, which the Government will find very hard to meet."

Promising, but there’s still work to be done. So how can supporters contribute their efforts? Rebecca and Charles would prefer that the government was persuaded to do the right thing, rather than be forced to do so by the courts. “Please sign our petition, donate to our legal fund, and write to your MP to demand change if you support the principle that everybody should be equal before the law.”

Do you? I do.

More from The Skinny:

equal marriage – Gender equality isn't just for the workplace

"is it not a bit victorian?" – the monotony of monogamy

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