It’s been a year since the Civil Partnership Act 2004 came in to force giving gay and lesbian couples the same rights as their straight counterparts to “marry” (officially to “affirm their union”), to become their partner’s next-of-kin, to gain inheritance and pension rights, to divorce (”experience dissolution”). And it seems the middle-England horses have remained resolutely unfrightened.
Civil partnerships have quickly and seamlessly become a feature of British national life. The statistics are compelling: more than 15,500 couples registered civil partnerships in the period from last December to September this year, suggesting that government predictions of 22,000 partnerships by 2010 are a huge underestimate. But perhaps more significant is that among the 15,500 pledging their union were a cabinet member - Ben Bradshaw, the Fisheries minister - and among those planning to tie the knot are Adam and Ian from The Archers, which, lest we forget, is “an everyday story of country folk”.
Ambridge’s Wedding of the Year takes place this week. “A gay wedding on The Archers,” marvels Adam Mattera, editor of the gay lifestyle magazine Attitude, which carried Elton and David’s only “official wedding interview”. (Elton: “I think the fact of gay men just being able to express commitment is a very important issue”.)
“If you’d told me in my teens that gay marriage would become a reality in the not-too-distant future, I wouldn’t have believed a word of it,” continues Mattera. “In the 1980s it was all Thatcher, Clause 28, and doom-laden Aids warnings on TV; one step forward and two steps back. I think the whole civil partnerships thing has been quietly momentous. And it’s not just about the legal benefits; it’s about a fundamental change in basic human rights.”
The trend analyst and social commentator Peter York says, “Civil partnerships have reinvigorated the whole notion of marriage. As an institution, it was getting a bit ragged in this country, wasn’t it? Most people weren’t doing it, or were failing at it. Now, for a whole bunch of people to embrace it in this way - well, no wonder the conservative lobby are rather stymied. It’s like the embourgeoisement of the gay outlaws - they’re coming in from the cold and taking their place at the table.”
As revolutions go, this one’s erred on the Velvet rather than Russian side, though some residual unease is proving rather dogged. Brian, Adam’s stepfather in The Archers, is threatening in huff-puff style not to attend the ceremony and Ian’s father has refused to go. A a fifth of listeners think same-sex marriage an “inappropriate” topic for the show, according to a poll for the programme’s website.
A geographical breakdown of the civil partnership figures shows a hefty South-east bias, London hosting a quarter of the UK total, while only 3 per cent have taken place in Wales and 6 per cent in Scotland. Three times as many male partnerships were formed as female, Yorkshire and the Humber lead the way in lesbian unions. The average age of male partners dropped over the first nine months of the new law, with those aged 50 or over falling from half at first - the initial “gay grey wave” of long-term partners - to one in four by September.
“No one’s pretending the legislation we’ve got is perfect,” says Mattera. “And some will choose a different path entirely. That’s their right. But for the first time, same-sex partnerships have been recognised in law, and that’s a real step forward. The genie’s out of the bottle. So bring on the brides and grooms.”
Peter York concurs. “I predict a rising tide of this new form of embourgeoisement,” he says, “to the point where gay weddings will become as white-bread mundane as their straight counterparts. And that will be the great, barricade-free victory. Do I think they add to the gaiety of the nation? Actually, I think they add to the decency of the nation. And that, in the end, is far more important.”