Civil Partnerships - A Milestone on the Road to Equality

Publish Date: 20/12/2011

Mike Newman and Dennis Killin have shared the importance of landmark civil partnership legislation in relation to their own relationship. Here they discuss the long road to civil partnerships.

In the 1957 Wolfenden Report which led to the partial decriminalization of homosexual sex between two consenting adults in 1967, Lord Wolfenden assumed gay relationships were sinful, but not criminal - this was recognised status for the first time, not just moving into neutral status - love at last proud to speak its name.

Cities like London and Manchester have offered a registration of commitment from 2001 onwards, which preceded the recognition of relationships at a nationwide level by four years.

A Bill was introduced in the Lords by Lord Lester of Herne Hill, a civil rights lawyer, in 2002. He announced its launch on January 10th 2002, with a statement in which he declared himself: ’delighted to take part in this public launch of the Civil Partnerships Bill that has been prepared in collaboration with Stonewall,and drafted by a former Parliamentary Counsel, Stephanie Grundy, whose great skill and experience have made it possible to produce a Private Member’s Bill that tackles an important and complex subject, cutting a path through the tangled thickets and undergrowth of family, property, social security and pensions law’. This illustrates the complexity of the subject, and the number of areas in which it was proposed gay and lesbian couples should have increased rights.

Originally it had a role for unmarried straight people, but this did not make it to the finish line when the government took it over, following a 251 to 136 victory for the sponsors in the Lords: ‘This is a historic step forward’, said Ben Summerskill of Stonewall ‘Finally the House of Lords is a tolerant twenty-first century institution.’Some Conservative peers, sponsored by the Christian Institute, stepped in to introduce amendments which would have made it unworkable, using language (’unnatural sexual practices’) which one might have thought long dead.

An amendment proposed by Norman Tebbitt wanted to remove the words ‘same sex’, as ‘blatant sexual discrimination’.

Following the Lords’ vote, Lord Lester agreed to withdraw his Bill, following a government decision to set up a major review of civil partnerships - the title thus gaining for the first time official currency, with 60 civil servants looking into the implications.

Hearteningly, the Christian Institute considered the review as ‘a cause for concern’, which must have reassured those in favour of partnerships, who might have suspected delaying tactics. The Christian Institute produced a booklet, ’Counterfeit Marriage‘,against rights for both same sex and cohabiting couples, referring, among other things, to the French and Russian revolutions.

It has much to say on the stability or otherwise of cohabitation, telling us that, of heterosexual cohabitees, three fifths go on to marry, the great majority of the remainder separating within two to three years. However, these are not people being offered an alternative other than marriage, and gay people are not being offered marriage.

It mistakenly quotes the western legal tradition on marriage and family as ‘explicitly based on Christian teaching’, then goes on to quote from Genesis, which is, of course, Jewish and not Christian. It quotes the necessity of children being brought up by loving parents, as if this were not possible either when the parents are not married.

It also quotes the Soviet Union as having much loosened the role of marriage, only to have to reinforce it from 1936 onwards; one would have thought Stalin a dubious ally in making a case for law in a democracy.

It quotes possible loopholes able to be exploited by those for whom the bill was not intended, such as friends or siblings wishing to ensure the passing on of property - but this is an argument for further legislation for those groups, not just for lesbian and gay couples - as mother would have said:‘Two wrongs don’t make a right’.

It even quotes disabled people’s parking permits as being downgraded if offered to non-disabled people! How this is an appropriate comparison is beyond me.

The Vote for Civil Partnerships

Nonetheless it was clear that the subsequent government-backed bill enjoyed widespread support, though not from Conservatives, including Alan Duncan, who voted against the Bill, despite having publicly outed himself in 2002 and when the law was changed, duly registering himself and his partner in a civil partnership.

The final Commons vote on 2004 Bill was 334 - 292 Labour, 36 Liberal Democrat, 3 S.N.P., 2 Plaid Cymru and 1 S.D.L.P., to 103, 93 Conservative, 5 D.U.P., 2 U.U.P., 2 Labour and 1 independent.

The split between the major parties is in stark contrast to the 1967 Sexual Offences Act, which received the support, as we have seen, of a substantial number of Conservatives. Among those voting against the civil partnership bill was David Cameron, who has since apologized.

Since the acceptance of the Act into law, and into operation at the end of 2005, several MPs have entered such partnerships, including Alan Duncan and Nick Herbert, also in the shadow cabinet at the time of writing. The first openly gay woman MP Labour’s Angela Eagle, had her forthcoming ceremony announced to the T.U.C. Congress, which would not have been especially sympathetic in days gone by, by the Leader of the Commons.

With splendid irony, the first public ceremony to take place was between two women in Belfast City Hall, Northern Ireland being the last part of the United Kingdom to decriminalise homosexuality, as recently as 1982. Homophobic attacks were saide still to be ‘rife’as the time of their ceremony.

The status of unmarried heterosexual couples was dropped from the Bill, and remains a subject of concern to those wanting equality, but is outside the scope of this account. Needless to say, the passage of the law has not silenced those who are resolutely opposed to it, including the gay opponents.

Cary Gee, in the New Statesman, wrote ‘Why we gays don’t want to get married’ as long ago as February 2002, when Ken Livingstone first opened his register, to warn us of the dreadful consequences of assimilation into this ‘non- queer’ institution, as if it had become compulsory; in fact, it is as voluntary as it has become for straight couples.


Ours is a much more fluid society than was the case when I was boy in the 1950’s, for many different sections of society.

The website inspired forty-one pages of responses to Peter Tachell’s objections to the supposed inferiority of civil partnerships to marriage, under the heading: ’Stop moaning Peter - civil partnerships are a triumph for gay rights in Britain, not sexual apartheid’.

We have found in the last few years that most people overwhelmingly accept that a new group exists, both gay and in all important respects, married, though called something different. It’s like women bus drivers and male midwives, something that was impossible until it happened, and from then on practically unremarked on.

Pioneers and Progress – A short British history of gay men’s freedom

23rd February 7pm at The Lesbian & Gay Foundation

A special event is being organised for LGBT History Month to share Mike’s short history of freedom for gay men in Britain since the 1950’s featuring exclusive interviews with Leo Abse, Alan Horsfall, Peter Tatchell, and Dennis Killin, the ‘foot soldier’ as well as thoughts on the late Antony Grey.

To find out more please e-mail:

  • Duncan

    You suggest Cary Gee is resolutely opposed to Civil partnership legislation. In fact this journalist has written dozens of articles in support of CP legislation and gay rights in general. Reading the (apparently tongue in cheek) article you refer to it seems obvious the writer is simply opposed to a gay approximation of a conventional \\\\\\\\\\\\\\\'wedding\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\'.

  • Luke

    This article states David Cameron voted against Civil partnerships, no he didn't. he voted in favour of them. He supports civil partnerships and now supports same sex civil marriage.