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Britain opens up to gay marriage
Fri Dec 2, 2:13 PM ET - AFP
Debbie and Elaine, Roger and Percy will be among the first to break new ground in Britain, taking advantage of new laws that come into force Monday allowing them to marry their gay partners.
According to official predictions, some 22,000 people will sign so-called civil partnerships between now and 2010, giving them the same rights and privileges as married, heterosexual couples.
Britain is the fifth country to introduce legislation allowing gay unions, following Belgium, Canada, Spain and the Netherlands.
Given the legal requirement of publishing the banns, the first ceremonies are scheduled for December 19 in Northern Ireland, December 20 in Scotland and December 21 in England.
The first ceremony itself will take place in Londonderry on December 19.
The southern English seaside resort of Brighton and Westminster, in the political and tourist heart of London, both wanted to be the first in England to marry same-sex partners. Ceremonies will be held there on December 21 at 8:00 am (0800 GMT) on the dot.
Both places are expecting a boost to their image and also hoping to attract the financial clout of the "pink pound".
In Brighton -- Britain's self-styled "gay capital" where 40,000 of its 161,000 inhabitants are homosexual -- vicar Debbie Gaston will marry Elaine Cook, her companion of 16 years.
The town's local authority believes choosing a woman of the cloth will reinforce the message.
"I've had comments made on me on various fundamental Christian sites on the internet, about how I'm going to hell," Gaston recalled with a smile recently.
" I think that perhaps they'll have a shock when they get to heaven and they see me there as well."
Westminster has opted for another symbol with Roger Lockyer, 77, and Percy Stevens, 66, who will finally be allowed to be legally united after 40 years in love.
The local Conservative-run council recognised in November "the important tradition" of homosexuality in the area, which includes the gay heart of London, Soho.
It also hastily quashed an old bylaw banning the flying of the "gay pride" rainbow-coloured flag in its streets.
If the advent of gay marriage sparks little debate in Britain, it has nonetheless forced the country's religions to show their hand.
The main ones reject the idea, apart from one of the three Jewish traditions in Britain.
Religious group Liberal Judaism has even created a specific blessing, "the Covenant of Love".
"Liberal Judaism champions justice, equality, compassion and inclusion," explained Elizabeth Tikvah Sarah, rabbi at the Brighton and Hove Progressive Synagogue.
"The new liturgy ensures that these values are put into practice as far as lesbian and gay Jews are concerned, by enabling couples to celebrate their partnerships in a Jewish framework."
Britain's main religion, the Church of England, has refused to bless same-sex unions but advised priests to act "with sensitivity".
The beginning of civil partnerships also has its showbiz element: pop star Elton John and his longstanding partner David Furnish intend to be among the first to sign up in December. George Michael has also announced his impending marriage to his companion Kenny Goss.
Like any issue in society, gay marriage has already prompted "politically correct" reactions.
Officials at the town hall in Liverpool, northwest England, changed the paintings in the register office "so as not to offend homosexual couples".
Landscapes now take the place of one painting showing Romeo and Juliet on a swing and another of a young married woman.
Meanwhile, a recent gay wedding exhibition in London issued the reminder -- if one were needed -- that all husbands-to-be had the same hopes and aspirations, whatever their sexual preferences.
"We want our weddings to be dignified," said organiser Richard Jones, adding: "They are not about men wearing dresses."