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Posted 11/24/2005 10:25 PM Updated 11/24/2005 10:40 PM
Britain's gay, lesbian couples soon can walk down the aisle
By Ellen Tumposky, Special for USA TODAY
LONDON — Normally, a Wednesday in December would be a slow day for weddings at Brighton Town Hall.
But there will be lots of confetti and rice on Dec. 21. Debra Reynolds and her colleagues who conduct civil ceremonies for Brighton and Hove City Council are booked starting at 8 a.m. for 16 sets of vows — all gay or lesbian couples entering into civil partnerships under a law passed last November.
Beginning Dec. 5, same-sex couples older than 16 can give legal notice of their intention to form a partnership. Ceremonies can be held after a 15-day waiting period.
Hundreds of couples across Britain are expected to register as soon as the law comes into effect. Among them: singer Elton John, 58, and his longtime partner David Furnish, 43, a Canadian filmmaker. In an interview published Thursday, John told the magazine Attitude that he plans to wed Furnish; the magazine said the ceremony would take place Dec. 21. (Related: Elton John plans ceremony)
Britain joins a number of other European countries, including Germany, the Netherlands, Spain, France and Belgium, in recognizing same-sex unions either as civil partnerships or gay marriages. Despite opposition from some Christian groups, the issue is far less contentious here than in the USA, where only Massachusetts allows gay marriage, and Vermont and Connecticut permit civil unions.
The 1996 Defense of Marriage Act allows U.S. states to refuse to recognize gay marriages or civil unions of other states or countries.
"I'd welcome Americans with open arms," says Richard Jones, 33, whose company Modern Commitments specializes in planning partnership ceremonies. "But it doesn't mean anything back in the U.S."
Public generally tolerant of new law
British same-sex couples who enter into civil partnerships will have the same rights as married heterosexual couples, including inheritance and pension rights, bereavement benefits and next-of-kin standing.
"There's very little difference apart from the name," says Richard Hogwood, a London lawyer. Still, gay partnerships are not marriages. Pre-nuptial agreements will be known as pre-registration agreements. Split-ups will be called dissolutions; adultery cannot be cited. "A civil partnership is a non-sexual thing in a way, because there is no need to consummate it as there is with a marriage," Hogwood says.
In Britain, the public appears to be relatively tolerant of the law. "In the UK, the average person in the street is more secular than in the U.S.," says Mike Judge, a spokesman for the Christian Institute, which opposed the measure.
"Society has evolved to a point where people accept people for who they are, not what they are," says wedding official Reynolds, 46, who last weekend staffed one of 100 displays at the Modern Life exhibition in London — a full-scale gay wedding show.
"A lot of people in the UK wish to formalize their relationships. It's about time it happened," says Paul Roseby, 39, a broadcaster visiting the show with his partner, James Tod, 38, a theater producer. They plan a partnership ceremony in two years.
Don Rainbow, 46, and Malcolm Higgs, 39, are registering on Dec. 5 and will say their vows at 8 a.m. in Richmond, London, on the 21st. The couple plan midmorning champagne and canapés on the London Eye (a type of Ferris wheel also called the Millennium Wheel) with 30 friends and relatives, followed by a wedding breakfast and an evening Winter Wonderland-themed reception for 220 guests at a Holiday Inn in Shepperton south of London.
"We like to be over the top," says Rainbow, a home-care manager.
Some think the partnership pacts open up opportunities for people to cash in. "Another way of making money out of the pink pound," said Gaby Dalena, 39, as she looked skeptically at the wedding fair's displays of chocolate fountains and fuchsia "commitment stationery." She came to the fair with her partner for a day out. They don't plan to register a partnership. Dalena said she is concerned about homophobia. "My family, my friends, everyone is aware of my sexuality. I don't want it on a national register," she said.
Legislation had 'a sense of urgency'
The fact that Britain — unlike Spain, Canada and Belgium — does not allow civil unions to be called marriages angers many gay activists. Andy Forrest, a spokesman for Stonewall, a gay rights lobby group that was prime mover behind the legislation, says it would have been far tougher to get same-sex marriage through Parliament. "We thought there was a sense of urgency in getting the legislation through. What it's called can be argued about later."
The Christian Institute says what the unions are called is just a subterfuge. "We feel that it's gay marriage in all but name," spokesman Judge says. "It changes the nature of what we understand marriage to be in society: ... The lifelong union of a man and woman."
"It's not in law a marriage, but people who matter will consider it a marriage," says Adrian Stones, 25, who is planning a summer 2007 ceremony with partner Andrew Burton, also 25. He wants the partnership for recognition and legal rights.
Burton has other motives: "I want the party and the presents."