Friday, 16 July 2010

Civil Partnerships and Marriage: What's The Difference?

Here is a question I find repeated, in various formulations, by a variety of people. So here's a handy-dandy list for quick reference to avoid repeating myself!

***EDIT 07/04/2012***

Excellent video here with a couple of examples of differences played out with Lego!

***END EDIT***


The most obvious difference in law is gender. A marriage is a partnership between a man and a woman. A civil partnership is one between two people of the same sex. This all sounds pretty reasonable until you consider the implications. Gender, in a legal sense to avoid arguments, is NOT set in stone. People can, and do, change their gender.

So if you have a married couple, and the "man" in that couple transitions into becoming a female, that couple would automatically have their marriage dissolved regardless of whether they wished it to be or not. They will lose accrued pension rights and other financial benefits and need to get a civil partnership if they wish to again be legally recognised as a couple... and the benefits will need to start to be gained FROM SCRATCH again.

This is my number one reason for campaigning for marriage (and civil partnership) equality. Transgendered people, and their partners, are unfairly discriminated against by the "separate but equal" way we are currently doing things in this country.

International recognition

Marriage differs from country to country, but, generally, only by a small amount and in most countries they will be recognised on an, for all intents and purposes, equal footing. Civil partnerships are far more complicated. Obviously civil partnerships won't be recognised at all in countries that don't recognise same sex relationships. Not much we can do about that. But in those countries which do, civil partnerships can be recognised in all sorts of annoying ways.

For example, will Argentina recognise a UK civil partnership as marriage? It's not so, why would they? Some countries with equal marriage do recognise civil partnerships as marriage, some don't. Some have civil unions as well as marriage and may well recognise civil partnerships as a civil union instead (and those civil unions might be even less equal to marriage than our civil partnerships). Can you guarantee that, if you go to a foreign country and fall ill, they will recognise your civil partner as such and allow them to speak on your behalf? No you can't.

And when someone is married in, say, Canada, when they arrive here they are not treated as a married couple but as civil partners. How is that fair? How is that acceptable?

It's a muddle. An international confusion. If we have equal marriage those other countries with equal marriage will automatically accept things and those that don't will "downgrade" them like we do to their own civil unions. And hopefully one day we'll get them to accept equal marriage too.

Separate but Equal

I'm going to be honest. If you're a gay couple, who doesn't travel much and who doesn't give a damn for transgender rights (shame on you), then civil partnerships are a bloody good approximation to marriage. But that is all. An approximation. They are different.

This is a mental thing, a personal thing if you will. I cannot argue for this in a legal sense. This is all about my feelings. How can I stand in front of my heterosexual family and friends and take vows to love and honour my boyfriend, when I know that it's not the same law that will govern my relationship as governs theirs? I cannot bring myself to do it. I don't want to play at marriage, pretend to be a husband, be recognised under a special law just for the gays. I want to be equal. I want to be able to say that my love is no different to love they have for their dearest one. How can I, when the Government doesn't recognise them as the same?

We all know separate but equal is not equal. One doesn't expect to have use a "gay water fountain" so why should we accept a "gay civil partnership"?


Civil partnerships are discrimination as ruled by the judge in Wilkinson v Kitzinger.

The Nitty Gritty

Here's the stuff that's dull and boring and not really a reason to fight against but still indicative of the difference in law.

Civil partnerships do not have to be consummated. Really, they don't! A marriage does. It's a legal requirement. So civil partnerships actually are not about "love" in it's most primal, physical sense (hey I think that might be a positive!). They thus give us special rights that heterosexuals don't have. Again, unfair.

Religious freedom

The Government has decided that religions cannot legally marry who they wish to. That is wrong. See here for more

But being different is fun!

Not if your transgendered it's not! And also, that's a very short term idea of different. Look at the bigger picture. .

I'm sure there are other reasons, but I think this is enough to show that civil partnerships are not equal. And that equal marriage is what is needed now. Why do countries who have civil unions not just leave it at that? Why do they move on to marriage equality? Because they understand marriage and civil unions are different. Separate but NOT equal. Soon, I hope, we in this country will realise that too.

If you feel benevolent and particularly generous, this writer always appreciates things bought for him from his wishlist


igaylord said...

Excellent post.

You usefully raise the issue of persons whose genders are re-assigned after contracting marriages - or, presumably, civil partnerships. In both cases the contracts are voided.

As this is clearly unjust do you not think we could get our parliaments to legislate specifically - to provide that, in the event of gender reassignment of one of the parties, marriages be automatically deemed to be civil partnerships, and vice versa, and without interruption to accrued rights and obligations ?

I live in Scotland and I am not sure what the legal position is in England, but as I understand it "consummation" is not a requirement for a civil - i.e. legally binding - marriage, nor is "adultery" in itself any longer grounds for divorce. (God knows, ecclesiastic law is a different matter!)

The contract has evolved, is evolving, and we all know straight friends who nowadays choose, probably foolishly, not to marry at all.

The Wilkinson v Kitzinger case is one in which the court declined to recognise a Canadian marriage in the UK, which is maybe salutary. If our civil partnerships were re-labeled as "marriages" I know they would still not be recognised as such in - say - Uganda. In much of the outside world the mere label would change nothing.

My own partner and I lived and worked in Africa for many years as an openly gay couple and travelled widely. It was huge relief when we were able to achieve the security - the safety - of a civil partnership in this country - though of course we knew this to be only a massive, massive stage in the battle for equality.

As the freedom fighters in Mocambique always said - aluta continua - and I wear my - different - label with pride.

Jae Kay said...

Two issues with the changing of marriages into civil partnerships:

1) it still doesn't take into account what the couple actually want.
2) it's more law. It'd be simpler just to remove the gender specific parts of the relevant acts (the The Marriage (Scotland) Act 1977 and the Marriage (Northern Ireland) Order 2003 and Matrimonial Causes Act 1973).

I'm not fighting for a relabelling of civil partnerships, nor a situation like in South Africa where gay marriage is a separate institution. I'm looking for a situation as in Argentina where the parts of the act that outlaw same sex marriage are removed so everyone is dealt with equally. Civil partnerships should also be equalised as some seem to prefer them.

Then we can have equality.

Will Knock said...

There's another difference that you've missed, which is that Civil Partners aren't legally entitled to survivor's benefits from a private pension scheme if their partner dies. It all comes down to the fact that they are a partner and not a spouse, and therefore different in law.

Many private providers do of course choose to treat them equally, but not all. It's clearly an unintended difference, but one that wouldn't have happened at all if we had full marriage equality.

ellenheather said...

Here's another difference. Legally in a civil marriage words must be exchanged,
"You must choose from one of the following standard sets of declaratory and contracting words (these are a legal requirement and cannot be altered) which will form part of your marriage ceremony."
Whereas in a civil partnership this is not the case,
"If you have chosen to include our non-legal civil partnership ceremony as part of your special day then you may choose from one of the following standard sets of declaratory and contracting words which will form part of that ceremony."
Text from

I find this the most upsetting difference between them to be honest. I want to have to legally say contracting words. But really all I am legally obliged to do is sign a piece of paper. How unromantic.