Unwedded Bliss


Gay marriage? No thanks! Who needs it? Wedded bliss sounds fine. But what about when things go wrong? With marriage comes the messiness of D-I-V-O-R-C-E and the millstone of A-L-I-M-O-N-Y.

Many queers seem undeterred. The push for gay weddings is powering ahead all over the world.

Over the last nine years, five Scandinavian countries have granted legal rights to lesbian and gay couples through a system known as ‘registered partnerships’. These are, in essence, a gay version of hetero matrimony. The main difference is the name.

But before we all jump on the same-sex marriage bandwagon, there is one very obvious question that needs answering. Why should getting married be the only way that couples can secure legal rights? Plenty of unmarried partners have relationships that are as loving and long-lasting as those of their wedded counterparts.

As the law stands, it’s not just gay partners who are denied recognition and protection. Unmarried straight couples also have few rights. A new system could therefore benefit many heterosexuals as well.

The basic principle of partnership law should be that people in relationships are entitled to have their union recognised. Marriage has, so far, been the only method of securing this recognition.

If, however, the basis for granting partnership rights is redefined as the existence of mutual love and commitment, then surely unmarried couples deserve the same rights as married ones.

The recent debate about the rights of unwed partners has tended to focus on same-sex couples and homosexual weddings. This sudden passion for gay marriage is somewhat curious. It coincides with evidence that the number of hetties getting married in the UK is the lowest for 70 years, and that nearly half of all weddings are annulled. Since 1971, the marriage rate has halved and the divorce rate has doubled. Yet gay people are, it seems, jumping on the marriage bandwagon at the very moment when straight couples are deserting married life in droves. Nowadays, the most enthusiastic supporters of matrimony are religious fundamentalists and faggots.

The growing movement for gay marriage is a big mistake. Most homo couples don’t want to get married, and with good reason. Marriage is an institution that evolved primarily to ensure the sexual control of women by men, and to regulate the conception and rearing of children. Tailor-made for an old-fashioned, patriarchal version of heterosexuality, it’s irrelevant to the vast majority of lesbian and gay people (and to many liberal minded straights too).

What’s more, being queer frees us from the rules and rites of hetero culture. Having enjoyed the greater lifestyle choices that same-sex relationships offer, it would be a backward step for gays to turn around and don the straight-jacket of wedlock.

The current ban on same-sex marriage is, of course, a form of discrimination, which makes it wrong. Gay couples should be able to get married if they wish. But why would they want to? Getting hitched doesn’t ensure that a relationship is happier or more fulfilling. What makes queer lovers think they need the stamp of official approval? Isn’t love enough? Can’t they see that wedded bliss will eventually turn to boredom and tears? Who wants to go through protracted legal battles over the ownership of the Alessi kettle and the Madonna CDs?


But homo-friendly politicians aren’t listening. They’re too busy legislating rights that many of us don’t want. In addition to the ‘full monty’ gay marriage that recently came into force in the Netherlands, the ‘registered partnership’ model has been operating for a number of years in Denmark, Greenland, Sweden, Norway and Iceland. Under this system, lesbian and gay couples who register their relationships at the local Town Hall are granted all the legal rights enjoyed by married heterosexuals, except the right to adopt children and access to donor insemination services. The main drawback is that this system benefits only a tiny minority of queers.

Denmark legalised gay registered partnerships in 1989. Since then, less than one in ten Danish same-sex couples have registered their relationships. Over 90 percent reject the idea of mimicking heterosexual nuptials, and are therefore denied the rights that go with registration.

Legalising gay marriage in Britain would probably result in a similar low take-up rate. The majority of queer couples undoubtedly want – and deserve – legal rights such as acknowledgement as next-of-kin. But most are critical of marriage and have no desire to go through an official state-sanctioned ceremony. Allowing gays to get married would therefore continue to leave the bulk of same-sex relationships without legal rights because marriage is an option that few would bother to exercise. This is the main weakness of gay marriage: it helps few and does nothing for many.

Reforms in Hungary point in a more promising direction. Two years ago, the Hungarian parliament extended the legal recognition of common-law relationships to include lesbian and gay couples. Without the need for a formal ceremony or the official registration of their relationship, same-sex lovers now have automatic legal rights identical to those of unmarried heterosexual couples, including all the legal rights that accompany marriage (except access to donor insemination clinics and the right to adopt children). The Hungarian model, although not perfect, benefits many more homosexual partners than the Danish system of registered partnerships

Here in Britain, instead of copy-catting the straight model of matrimony, we queers should be more creative and invent our own alternative. What’s required is a major rethink regarding the legal rights of all unwed partners, homo and hetero. Moreover, if we could come up with an alternative that also helps unmarried straights, it would widen public support for reform.

We need to take the debate back to first premises and ask: Is it a legitimate function of the law to privilege marriage over unformalised loving relationships? For many people nowadays, the traditional ritual of betrothal is less important – if not irrelevant. What really counts is love and loyalty. In that case, all couples who are committed to each other should be endowed with rights, irrespective of whether or not they are married, and regardless of their sexuality.


This necessitates the creation of a new system of relationship recognition, as an alternative to marriage. I have proposed an Unmarried Partners Act, giving legal rights to all gay and heterosexual couples who, for whatever reason, choose not to get married. These rights would be identical to those enjoyed by married men and women, including acknowledgement as next-of-kin in emergencies like illness or accident; joint guardianship of any children; the inheritance of pensions, life insurance and property on the death of a partner; and entitlement to company benefits that extend to employee’s spouses, such as travel perks and health-care cover.

It is these practical rights – not marriage – that most lesbian and gay partners want. Providing such rights as a matter of course, without couples having to participate in a state-approved ceremony to get them, would also help the rising number of heterosexuals who choose cohabitation over marriage.

With my flexible-option Unmarried Partners Act, the rights granted to couples would be automatic, but they would have to be claimed. This would allow partners to ‘opt in’ or ‘opt out’ of the legal rights available. They could claim all, some or none of the rights, depending on their needs. In contrast, couples in marriages get lumbered with a full set of rights (and responsibilities), whether they want them or not.

Under my Unmarried Partners Act, people in a relationship of at least 12 months standing would be entitled to claim partnership rights (the one year qualifying period being advisable to prevent short-term, opportunistic lovers making claims on their partner’s property). Proof of eligibility could be a simple Letter of Partnership, signed by the couple and a person of professional standing (such as a lawyer or doctor) confirming that they had been partners for a year or more. This Letter of Partnership could be revoked at any time by either partner signing a Letter of Annulment witnessed by a professional.

In the event of one partner becoming mentally incapacitated or dying without having signed a Letter of Partnership, the other partner could still make a claim (providing it did not conflict with the deceased person’s will or other legal document). However, to prevent false partnership claims, the relationship would need to be confirmed by two professionals and be backed up with documentary evidence such as love letters, joint accounts and mortgage contributions.

There may be some people who, for whatever reason, do not want their lover to claim partnership rights, such as inheritance. They should be able to ‘opt out’ of any (or all) of the rights by specifying this in a will or affidavit, which would have legal precedence.

This proposed Unmarried Partners Act offers a long overdue extension of rights to unwed couples. Modern, simple, egalitarian, democratic and flexible, it would end the legal authoritarianism whereby only married partners are deemed worthy of legal recognition and protection.

* Peter Tatchell is the author of Safer Sexy – The Guide To Gay Sex Safely(FreedomEditions).

Thud, 29 January 1998.

Shorter versions have been published as “Beyond Gay Marriage”, Freedom, July1996, and “Marriage is for life, or not at all”, New Statesman, 21 February 1997.