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Perspective: Partners in love and in the eyes of the law; Gay lovers will enjoy the same rights as married couples under controversial proposals discussed by ministers yesterday.

Byline: Jessica Shepherd

Some have spent their lives fighting for it, others have spent their lives fighting against it.

And now it is on the horizon neither seem happy.

Gay lovers are to be given the same legal rights as married couples under the Civil Partnership Bill debated in Parliament yesterday.

They will have pension entitlements if their partner dies, next-of-kin rights in hospitals and exemption from inheritance tax on a lover's home.

Same-sex partners will be entitled to a range of property rights and the ability to get parental responsibility for their partner's children.

The revolutionary moves will mean gays will be able to sign an official document in front of a registrar and two witnesses, a so-called 'civil partnership'. And rather than have to live together for a certain period to be eligible for the rights, if the relationship breaks up there will be a formal court process to dissolve it.

All of which have been heavily criticised by many religious leaders. But, to the surprise of some, gay rights campaigners have also expressed anger at the Bill.

For although the 'partnership' appears to have been designed to be as close to a marriage contract as possible, it is not equal to a heterosexual union and can not be used as an alternative to marriage for opposite sex couples.

The measures do not allow gays to have a formal public ceremony and nowhere in the Bill is the term 'gay marriage' used. According to Peter Tatchell, a Midlands-based veteran gay rights campaigner it is not quite the 'historic step towards greater equality, justice and dignity for same-sex couples' that Jacqui Smith, deputy minister for women and equality, proclaimed yesterday.

He said: 'This Bill creates a system of sex apartheid. Gay partners are banned from getting married and heterosexual couples are banned from civil partnerships.

'Instead of legislating equality, the Government has introduced a Bill that reinforces discrimination.

'It perpetuates the divisions between gay and straight people. We see no need for a separate civil partnership scheme, the best way to ensure legal rights for same-sex couples is by ending the ban on gay marriages.'

Mr Tatchell has called on the Government to legalise gay marriages and grant both homosexual and heterosexual cohabiting couples the same rights.

A sentiment that Jane, who runs a support group in Birmingham for gays and lesbians, shares.

She said: 'I want the same rights as everybody else and of course that includes having a public ceremony in a church if I wish it. Being gay is something to be celebrated, not a reason to be vilified. It shows the diversity of nature.'

Last July Birmingham's gay community was ecstatic when the council announced it was to start staging the ceremonies which enable same sex couples to publicly declare their commitment to each other. But then council chiefs admitted the ceremonies were not to be allowed in the Register Office.

Are yesterday's proposals yet another example of politicians stopping short of giving gays and lesbians equality?

We consider ourselves a tolerant, multi-cultural region where communities of different colour, race and creed live side by side in harmony. But we may be kidding ourselves.

Mike Judge, a spokesman for the Christian Institute, told the BBC the new civil partnerships devaluated marriage by giving gay couples all the legal privileges of married couples.

He said: 'If the Government was being consistent it would extend rights to anybody living together in a loving relationship -two sisters, for example, who still faced inheritance hurdles.'

A study of crime affecting lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people carried out by the University of Central England and the Birmingham Community Safety Partnership in December showed half had suffered homophobic harassment or violence in the last five years.

A third did not feel safe in their own home and 12 per cent had attempted suicide for reasons connected to their sexuality.

And that is just the tip of the iceberg. Behind the figures, many more live in fear of being attacked and experience discrimination at work.

All for something Paul, a Birmingham outreach worker for Healthy Gay Life welfare services, said was not even a lifestyle choice.

'We didn't decide to be gay, we can't help it. We need support not hate,' he said.

And true equal rights may be a good start.


Tony Barlow and Barry Drewitt, who fathered surrogate twins Aspen and Saffron
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Apr 1, 2004
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