There were many stories circulating this week, some heart warming and some profoundly moving. For me the most powerful was that of Percy and Roger, 75 and 87 respectively, together for 49 years who converted their civil partnership on the 17th floor of Westminster City Hall.
Their story resonated for me not just because they had been waiting for the opportunity for so long, but because I remember the 17th floor of Westminster City Hall only too well. Back in the early 80’s it was home to the office of Westminster NALGO of which I was secretary.
It was there that we held the first meeting of the branch lesbian and gay group and from where we supported the fledgling national lesbian and gay members infrastructure in the union. It was long before lesbian and gay rights enjoyed the support it does in the trade union movement now, let alone the support of a Conservative controlled council which in those days was in the clutches of Lady Shirley Porter.
It was impossible to imagine in 1984 that this is where we’d be today. Our priorities back then were basic employment rights, an equal age of consent and for lesbians a recognition that they even existed. Just coming along to that first meeting of our local group was a brave step and a leap into the unknown.
So the idea that Percy and Roger’s civil partnership could take place down one of those corridors is for me a potent symbol of the change we’ve achieved in the succeeding 30 years. I’d love to have been a fly on the wall. And I’m proud and delighted that some of the work we did in that office all those years ago has contributed to their special day.
In reality the right to convert is a classic case of the horse and the stable door. As Bea Campbell pointed out in 2012, the fine line between civil partnership and marriage has long since been broken in popular culture, even though religious institutions languish. Getting civilly partnered just didn’t have quite the same ring to it for many!
But amidst all the celebration this week it’s also worth remembering that some of those who've entered into civil partnerships won’t choose to convert, let alone ‘upgrade’. They won’t do so because for them the option of civil partnership offered something different to marriage which suited their needs and aspirations.
I didn’t like the way this was brushed aside during the passage of the legislation by those who asked why we would want a civil partnership when we could get married? In fact some people will continue to opt to do neither because, as research has shown, for them even civil partnership reinforces a traditional concept of marriage which they don’t buy into.
In practice of course it’s all still a bit messy. In a UK context, Northern Ireland will be out on a limb. Same sex marriages won’t be an option in places of worship. And opposite sex couples don’t have the option of civil partnership which some would like. Arguably we need to sort some of that mess out before we really have full equality.
Marriage would be my choice now, but I’ve not always felt that way. And I think the most important thing is that whatever choice we make, our relationships should be no less valid, no less worthy of recognition. So conversion is one thing, but when I hear the term upgrade I feel distinctly uncomfortable. I can’t help wondering if there’s a Weekend First option! More seriously it creates a hierarchy of relationships not a level playing field. And that flies in the face of the principle of equality.
So let’s celebrate being one step closer to full equality. But let’s celebrate diversity and plurality too. Let’s raise a glass to difference as well as sameness. It makes the world a more interesting place.