The one-size-fits-all model of relationship recognition epitomised by marriage and civil partnerships is no longer appropriate
By Peter Tatchell
London, UK – 29 March 2019
The HuffPost: https://bit.ly/2FzRiU6
Having spearheaded the campaign for same-sex marriage since 1992, I was delighted when marriage equality finally became a reality in 2014. With pride, I was chief witness as my friends – Peter McGraith and David Cabreza – became one of the first couples in the UK to become husband and husband five years ago today, on 29 March 2014.
This is perhaps ironic, because I have never been a fan of wedlock, given its patriarchal, heterosexist history. I share the feminist critique. But I always saw the ban on same-sex marriage as homophobic discrimination and therefore something to be opposed and overturned.
While supporting equal marriage, I have also long argued in favour of an alternative and entirely new modern, flexible system of partnership recognition and rights; applying to all caring, committed relationships and allowing partners to choose from a menu of rights and responsibilities to create their own customised partnership agreement.
From an ethical point of view, it is arguable that any two people who share a close, deep bond ought to be eligible for reciprocal legal rights. Instead of restricting these rights to people in a romantic and sexual relationship, they should be extended to cover all relations based on mutual care and commitment.
Supportive, loyal and enduring relationships – whether between lovers or close friends – are good for the people involved and have a wider social benefit. As well as enhancing an individual’s happiness and well-being, they strengthen a person’s ability to cope with adversity and diminish their dependence on the state. It is therefore in society’s interest to encourage and reward such relationships with legal validation and protection.
For these reasons, I have proposed a new legal framework – what I have called a Civil Commitment Pact – that would allow people to nominate as their next-of-kin and inheritance beneficiary any ‘significant other’ in their life. This could be a partner, but it could also be a sister, carer, favourite nephew or life-long best friend.
Many non-sexual friendships are just as sincere, loyal and enriching as relations between people in love. They, too, should have legal recognition. There is no good reason to restrict legal rights to people in sexual relationships. That discriminates against friends who support each other, but who are not in a traditional love coupling.
Why shouldn’t two life-long best friends have legal rights similar to two lovers? The main substantive difference in the nature of their relationships is that the latter have sex and the former don’t. Why should sex be privileged over friendship?
With one in two marriages ending in divorce, and a quarter of households comprising of single people, friends now play an important, if not major, role in many people’s lives and support networks. Surely it is wrong to discriminate against two friends who have a strong, close bond, just because they are not romantically involved and do not have sex?
As well as allowing people to nominate any significant person in their life as next-of-kin and inheritance beneficiary, my proposed Civil Commitment Pact would offer a new legal framework for partners in love. It would give them flexibility and choice with regard to their rights and responsibilities.
Within our society we see a huge variety of relationships and lifestyles. There are people who live together and those who live apart. Some share their finances; others maintain financial independence. There are couples with children and those without them. The law should reflect and support these diverse relationship choices and realities. The one-size-fits-all model of relationship recognition – epitomised by marriage and civil partnerships – is no longer appropriate.
Partnership legislation should allow people to select from a menu of rights and responsibilities. This flexibility would enable people to devise a tailor-made partnership agreement suited to their own particular needs. Some partners, for example, may want next-of-kin rights but not joint guardianship of children from a previous relationship. The law should let them make that choice.
Unfortunately, marriage and civil partnerships (the latter is essentially marriage by another name) don’t give us these options. It is all or nothing.
Permitting people to choose from a menu of rights and responsibilities has an additional virtue. It would require partners to sit down together and negotiate their obligations towards each other on each specific issue, such as property inheritance and the right to sign a partner’s death certificate and organise their funeral. This point-by-point negotiation would force partners to examine their relationship more closely and to think through in greater detail the implications of entering a partnership agreement. It might lead to a sounder decision and a more enduring commitment.
With marriage and civil partnerships, however, there is no obligation on partners to discuss the detail of their mutual rights and responsibilities. They simply sign a certificate, without any need to negotiate the particulars.
My proposed Civil Commitment Pact, giving rights to both love partners and non-sexual close friends, offers a modern, democratic, egalitarian and flexible alternative to marriage and civil partnerships. It would benefit everyone without discrimination – single and partnered, LGBT and straight, lovers and friends. Hurrah!