It is ten years since the first civil partnerships in Scotland, but there is still no equality before the law. Now, after a rather biased consultation process, the Scottish government is about to make a choice for us. The anniversary provides as with an opportunity to take a look at the role of civil partnerships in Scotland’s future, and ask: will we have discrimination or equality enshrined in our laws?
Officially, the first date Civil Partnerships could occur was 21st December 2005, but due to an error in interpreting the rules the first ceremony actually happened in Aberdeen on 20th December.
Ten years ago when my partner Simon Long and I became the first couple in the Highlands to enter a civil partnership, we were amazed at how far we had come. We both remembered the days when we could have been arrested for our love, and now the same state was recognising the legitimacy of our relationship. The civil partnership wasn’t perfect, and a year ago we converted it into a marriage. Now, as far as the law is concerned, our marriage took place December 2005.
The introduction of civil partnerships led to a number of anomalies. For us at the time, the major one was the partnership registration could not have a religious element. We got round that by having a religious service immediately after the registrar had left (followed by the 100 plus guests partying into the early hours of 22nd). We knew no Catholic priest would be allowed to conduct the service, so we asked the Episcopal priest responsible for congregations in Sutherland, as he had a reputation as a liberal. Initially he agreed. Then two weeks before the the service he told us he felt unable to help us, as he was concerned about the publicity and the reaction of his parishioners. He is now a Canon and a supporter of Changing Attitudes.
His difficulty in practising his principles gave us a problem. However, a friend of ours who was a Methodist local preacher in England agreed to conduct the service, which was ecumenical and included people of many and no faiths. The preacher was a Methodist, the organist from the Church of Scotland and the readers included Catholics, Episcopalians and Adventists. Michael Russell, who was later to become a cabinet minister in Alex Salmond’s government, read from Oscar Wilde’s “Soul of Man Under Socialism” which emphasised the inclusiveness of Christ’s message.
The other major anomaly was that civil partnerships were only available to same sex couples. So we had a situation where only heterosexual couples could marry, but only same sex couples could enter civil partnerships. This was deeply unsatisfactory for all concerned. Some people have ideological objections to marriage, but wish to formally cement their relationships with their partners. Yet, despite both civil partnerships and marriage now being options for same sex couples, only marriage is available for heterosexual couples.
Following the introduction of equal marriage, the Scottish Government began a consultation process on the future of civil partnerships, asking people for their views on the three possible options: the status quo, introducing provisions to prevent any new civil partnerships, or extending civil partnerships to heterosexual couples. The Minister for Local Government and Community Empowerment, Marco Biagi, made it clear the Government did not favour extending civil partnerships to heterosexual couples. The reasons given were that there was so little demand for extending the scope of civil partnerships and it would not be cost effective.
This has been criticised by politicians from most parties, as well as from the Equality Network and activists like Peter Tatchell who told KaleidoScot the Scottish Government’s stance “contradicts the First Minister’s repeated commitment to equality for all and sabotages the democratic principle that everyone should be equal before the law.” We should also be wary when politicians use cost as an excuse for not implementing equality, particularly when the cost would be negligible.
There is an irony in the fact that thirty five years after male homosexuality was decriminalised in Scotland, there is one area where the law discriminates in favour of lesbian and gay couples. This anomaly could easily and quickly be resolved by ensuring all of us, regardless of our sexuality or gender, can choose between marriage or civil partnership or neither. This is the choice that Scotland awaits its government to take.
An Ipsos MORI opinion poll in 2012, conducted on behalf of the Equality Network, found that 71% of people in Scotland agreed that civil partnership should be opened up to mixed-sex couples.