Tuesday, 14 September 2010

Marriage and Civil Partnerships and then...?

Bear with me, this is all leading up to a question.

At the party's conference in Liverpool next week, the Liberals will debate changes to the systems of marriage and civil partnerships that would open either up to any couple. It seems fairly likely that the policy will be passed: it has been put forward by the party's LGBT equality group, and I don't think the main conference of the party has ever defeated a motion put down by them in its twentyone (or fortysix or whatever) years.

Party leader Nick Clegg has already expressed his support for same-sex marriage.  His counterpart in the other party in Britain's left-right coalition government, David Cameron, has made similar noises - albeit perhaps facing a harder struggle to bring his parliamentary party with him in a vote on the matter. And I think all five candidates for the leadership of the centre-right Labour party have signed up to the idea when quizzed during the current leadership contest.

Seven MPs agreeing doesn't make a new law, mind.  Parliamentary time has to be found, and the Coalition Agreement includes various commitments on LGBT equality issues but not marriage.  However, there might well be an amendment to some bill or other along the way, and with the kind of cross-party support that voting with one's leader could allow, it might yet happen. If not, it's hard to imagine it not being in one or two manifestos come the 2015 election, if not all three.

There's a bit of talk now about how Civil Partnerships constituted some kind of sell-out.  Now, it's true they aren't good enough to constitute equality: as I'm fond of saying, ten years ago as a bisexual person some of my relationships were treated differently in law from others, whereas ten years on everything has changed and it's exactly the same.  But in the context of the time that law was drafted, when as a society we were closer to the introduction of Section 28 than we were to 2010, it was a bold but perhaps-deliverable goal.

But now the world has moved on: we may not get equal marriage (and access to civil partnerships for mixed-sex couples who prefer to keep their distance from the historic connotations of marriage) right away, but I'm sure it has to happen some time this decade.

After that, and given our propensity to want to formalise and recognise our longer-term relationships, I suppose the debate moves to poly partnership recognition: but surely that's hell to legislate. With civil partnerships there was a clear model being worked towards: "similar to marriage, similar to divorce, but without the wacky consummation clause".

So here comes the noodly bit I need to google properly some day: does the poly community have a moderately-agreed model of how it might work? I know every time I think about it my brain goes runny from the possibilities, especially of part-of-a-polycule divorce law. Linkys welcome!


  1. Yeah, legalised poly unions look set to be a minefield, but I don't think it's unfeasible. While there may not be an existing model, I imagine there are enough bits and pieces that can be borrowed from inheritance, alimony, child-custody laws etc. It's an opportunity to get creative - it may be that the fact that there isn't an existing model is a good thing in that it will allow poly families to pick and choose what works for them rather than being forced into a one-size-fits-all arrangement, it may force them to actually understand the complexities of these sorts of committments before entering into them, and not being rudely disillusioned further down the track.

    I'm not entirely convinced that pursuing marriage is the right way to go though. As with homosexual rights, I'm more of the view that rather than conforming to societal expectations we should be challenging them and the inequalities that they foster. And part of my own personal poly-consciousness is that relationships are subject to change over time, and something that might be right for you now might not be right for you in five or ten years time.

  2. How I would see it working is that civil partnerships remain more or less as they are, but are made (a) open to opposite-gendered couples and (b) non-exclusive, so that, provided you could clearly demonstrate the existence of an actual relationship, you could register more than one at once.

    Ideally, marriage would also cease to exist as a legal phenomenon, becoming something that was purely personal and optionally religious. There should probably be a grandfather clause for pre-existing civil marriages, whereby no new ones are performed, but old ones don't get 'downgraded' to CPs. It would probably turn out in such a situation that most people getting married would also be registering a CP at the same time, but there would be no requirement to do so.

  3. @ liminalD - at the level of two-person same-sex marriage I am in favour of it, even though I am in no hurry to be part of one.

    For me, it's just plain wrong and fundamentally illiberal that your sexual orientation should debar you from being an equal citizen.

    In the same way I supported the repeal of the ban on gay and bi people serving in the military, even though I'm a big old hippo who would never want to sign up: I should have the same right to be a damn draft-dodging lefty peacenik as my heterosexual friends!

    There are things I'd like to feel that the queer re-imagining of relationships feeds in to everyone's options, not just the choices of same-sex couples, in unwriting the old rules around sex and relationships structures.

    But for me has to be that it's OK to make the informed choice to do exactly the "old fashioned white-picket-fence two-point-four-kids" kind of thing. Queering things up in a way that creates new limitations just evokes that Tom Robinson extra "Glad to be Gay" verse about the prejudice he got from the gay community for not being the right kind of gay.

    Blimey this is a long comment. I should rejig it as a post sometime :D

  4. @Josy - I believe in Germany, you have a civil ceremony for marriage and then there is a separate, optional religious ceremony afterwards. I quite like that model which also sorts out the inequality that some religions are allowed to perform marriages but others are only allowed to solemnise civil marriages.

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