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Same-sex marriage moves ahead.

Spring has sprung, summer is beginning to sing--and weddings are bursting out all over. But what happens if Joseph falls for Jack and Janet dotes on Joan? Is there a wedding on the horizon for them? Do they have a means of celebrating their love and commitment with friends and family?

All over Europe, politicians and campaigners are discussing gay weddings with the less controversial alternative of "civil unions" being given greater precedence. Only the Netherlands and Belgium offer full marriage, the real thing, to same-sex couples, but in Germany at present the justice minister is promising to introduce legislation to permit same-sex marriages, despite the opposition of conservatives in the Upper House. In France, the first French gay marriage ceremony is about to be performed by a local mayor, who is threatened with fines for breaking the law. A French gay wedding should somehow, I feel, have great style.

In Britain, as has happened in about a dozen other European countries, a law to permit civil unions for same-sex relationships is going through the legislative process. It is expected to become law by November of this year, and the first legal gay registrations are likely to take place a year or so later. It seems an occasion for joy although civil unions are one degree less than full marriage. Presumably the couple can follow their formal registration with a wedding ceremony that has no legal status, as has been happening with humanist affirmation or commitment ceremonies for many years.

What benefits will the British Civil Partnership Registration scheme bring when it becomes law? There will be immigration rights, pension rights, the right to be treated as next of kin, joint responsibility for children, inheritance rights. In short, the same rights and benefits that heterosexual couples have. Inheritance rights are particularly important (as I am personally aware): if one member of a gay or lesbian couple dies there will be tax to be paid on part of the bequest from the deceased to the survivor (there is no such tax for heterosexual couples). In a fit of parsimony, the government is not allowing full pension rights until 2010. Unions are fighting this delay. A case is also being made for civil partnership rights for heterosexual unmarried couples.

Apart from the desire for equal rights, does the expression of love and passion and the hope for enduring care really require marriage rather than a legalistic civil union? I have been in a gay relationship for thirty-one years and have asked myself if my partner and I would want to marry at this stage. After all this time--very happy time--is not a marriage redundant? Aren't we metaphysically or metaphorically already married? When we held a large twenty-fifth anniversary party with our families, many friends, and neighbors, we were a little coy about calling it our "silver wedding anniversary," but the attendees were not at all coy about giving us silver roses and so on. I suppose that was the real public statement of our love.

When I was young and involved in gay liberation groups and homosexual equality organizations, people used to challenge the notion of gay marriage and ask, who wants to ape the bourgeois dead end of marriage? Why not have a variety of relationships? I used to sympathize with that sentiment. But now I can understand the value of having the opportunity to celebrate a same-sex marriage, which is a public demonstration of the integrity, commitment, and honesty of the relationship.

Churches have been the historic opponents of same-sex relationships, and the divided Christians (the Muslims seem to have no doubt about their opposition) are getting their knickers in such a twist over the issue that we can wonder whether they'll ever have any more fun. The problem for the Anglicans is that a high number of clergy are gay or lesbian, a barely kept secret that could be of great embarrassment if publicly discussed.

I was recently in Uganda, where the attitudes of religion and the state have led to such policies as life-imprisonment for homosexuals. I made a statement to the press in favor of gay rights. Of course, I knew I'd be leaving quite soon for countries where same-sex couples who want equality and marriage are finding it increasingly possible. But we cannot be happy until that has been achieved in all the countries around the world where homosexuals are persecuted.

Jim Herrick is editor of the U.K.'s Rationalist Press Association, the journal New Humanist, and the International Humanist News.
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Title Annotation:European Correspondent
Author:Herrick, Jim
Publication:Free Inquiry
Article Type:Editorial
Geographic Code:4E
Date:Aug 1, 2004
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