3 Feb 2016

On Civil Partnerships and "Straight Rights"

I have conflicting feelings about the recent (and unsuccessful) campaign led by a heterosexual British couple for equal access to civil partnerships. On the one hand, it reeks of straight privilege; implying that you're discriminated against because you can't utilise the same law as gay people totally obscures the fact that they would never have needed that same law if they hadn't been discriminated against in the first place. (It does also raise the separate question of what purpose civil partnerships actually serve, now that gay marriage is legal in the UK, and the former was often seen as a placatory gesture that fell short of equality anyway). On the other hand, speaking as someone who rejects many traditional heteronormative structures (monogamy, the desire for children, and I'm definitely not sure about marriage) I can certainly see where they couple were coming from.

Last week, Charles Keidan and Rebecca Steinfield lost their case, which they had taken to the UK High Court, and which stated they were being discriminated against because they could not have a civil partnership rather than getting married. Both options are now open to same-gender couples; only marriage is open to opposite-gender couples. The couple "said they wanted to commit to each other in a civil partnership as it "focuses on equality" and did not carry the patriarchal history and associations of marriage." The government's response was that as the couple's objection to marriage was "ideological", their rights were not infringed by not having access to civil partnership; the government also said that  "civil marriage was an institution that protected the core values of family life and was entirely egalitarian." Hmmm. Now this is where I feel the couple may have a point. And yes, it may technically be an "ideological" objection as opposed to an example of actual illegality, but nonetheless I do have some sympathy.

Yes, legally marriage between a man and a woman is "egalitarian" - long gone are the days when all a woman's property and money became her husband's upon marriage, and when it was much easier for a man to divorce his wife than vice versa, and when a husband automatically got custody of any children in the case of divorce. (The days when rape in marriage were legal are less "long gone," seeing as this was only made a crime in the UK in 1992 - but I digress.)
But socially? Not so much,
The majority of women in the UK still take their husband's name upon marriage. That's entirely their choice, but it remains gesture that his its roots in anything but egalitarianism - indeed, it's born from the law and customs that said a woman became her husband's property upon marriage. If I introduce my partner as my husband, people will assume we have the same last name, furthermore that said surname will be his and not mine, and that they should also call me Mrs (all are prospects I abhor. If marriage is truly egalitarian, why do men remain Mr both before and after marriage? Why is only the woman who is expected to change her prefix? Hence why I'll be Ms for life, regardless of my marital status).
Whereas if I introduce him as my partner, none of those assumptions will be made. 
If I introduce him as my husband, people will assume that he bought me an engagement ring, continuing the tradition that a man must "woo" his wife-to-be with an expensive material gesture, while she's obliged to do...er, nothing, except say yes. Not egalitarian.
If I introduce him as my husband, people will assume that we wed with me wearing a dress coloured to imply that my hymen is still intact (and that that fact is somehow the business of everyone in attendance), and that my father "gave me away" in the most patriarchal gesture possible, implying I am property to be handed from father to husband. Not egalitarian.
If I introduce him as my partner, people will not have these archaic presumptions in mind. They won't think of white dresses, rings, hen/stag parties (bachelor/bachelorette parties), which are to my mind bizarre, divisive rituals affirming irreverance towards the gender of your partners. They won't view our becoming partners as necessarily meaning we also plan to follow another socially dictated step and have children (I don't want children now or ever, and it bothers me that the majority of people are incapable of encountering two adults in a relationship without assuming this is the trajectory they must desire for that relationship).

So yes, I do believe there's a difference between marriage as it currently stands, and a civil partnership. I would possibly be more predisposed to considering some kind of commitment were it divested of all the sexist nonsense that I still view the wedding industry as being swathed in. I still might never do it, considering I'm polyamorous and lean towards the "solo poly" side of that, and am not interested in any traditional types of "nesting" (especially the kind of nesting that involves progeny). But it would be nice to have the option.

That said, I can see how Keidan and Steinfield's campaign could come across as somewhat obnoxious. Although they've been sensible enough not to frame it in terms of "straight rights" or anything so cringeworthy, there is a sense that's exactly what they're asking for. Those pesky gays have been given so many rights they've actually outstripped us straights, WTF! When homosexuality is still illegal in 75 world countries, you'll want to tread a bit carefully in making that claim. In terms of lack of social acceptance and increased risk of bullying, assault, murder and suicide, there is simply no way in hell that you can claim gays are having a better time of it than straights (they're having a much, much worse time on all those fronts and more, in case that wasn't clear) - even in our supposedly enlightened, first world country.

Also, it's worth considering: why were civil partnerships ever offered as an option to gay couples, when they were never a thing open to anyone else before? The answer is pretty clear: because the UK government was too afraid to go "all the way" and legalise gay marriage, so they wussed out and went with an in-between option. They hoped it would appease the gay community while keeping conservative and religious anti-gay factions happy too. Most of us were pretty stunned that it was the Labour government who fell short of full marriage equality for same-sex couples, and the Conservative government who righted this wrong in 2014, but regardless of who did it, the point remains: civil partnerships have possibly been rendered obsolete by the advance in same sex marriage rights. It was telling that, in reference to this case, a government spokesperson said it was"not necessary to undertake the costly and complex exercise of extending civil partnerships in the interim where they may be abolished or phased out in a few years." So perhaps this case will become irrelevant anyway, and if it does, us straights will just have to suck it up and dry our tears on statutes of the marriage rights that we had all along.

But it doesn't stop me thinking it would be nice to have an alternative to patriarchal, heteronormative constructions of marriage. I guess we can either eschew marriage altogether, or try to build new constructions of marriage ourselves (feminist, gay-friendly, truly egalitarian). It's great how many people are doing the latter - I'm sticking with the former for now.

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