The Bisexual Index

Bisexuals, Marriage & Civil Partnerships

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This article was written before recent changes to UK law, and is retained on the site for historic purposes. The information in this article is not up to date

Some people want to get married, and don't see why the law should stop them. Others want to celebrate their relationship without the 'baggage' they see in the cultural traditions of weddings. Some people reject both of those. But some of those looking to get married or partnered are bisexual, and find themselves in an problematic position.

The law in the UK was changed in 2004 to allow for a form of union called "civil partnership", intended as an equivalent of civil marriage without the word "marriage". It grants the same rights and responsibilities as a civil marriage, needs a divorce-like official separation to end and cannot be conducted in a church. Indeed, to make sure civil partnerships don't offend those who don't want same-sex weddings it is illegal for civil partnership or marriage ceremonies to include any religious readings, music, songs or symbols either.

Naturally, those campaigning for same-sex marriages don't see this as the battle won. Some people are both religious and attracted to someone of a similar gender, and they want to have same-sex weddings with all the religious trappings. This includes many bisexuals.

Perhaps surprising to the people arguing that marriage should be kept pure, holy and opposite-sexed is the fact that some people want to have civil partnerships who aren't gay. For some people the traditional religious marriage is seen as male-dominated, full of traditions that cast the bride as a possession, to "love, honour and obey" her husband. Indeed, as a bisexual registrar has emailed us to explain, "one of the advantages that civil partnerships have over civil marriages is that the option to add either or both parent to the schedule of partnership is available. In civil marriages, as the law was established in 1837, people only have the option to name their fathers. This is obviously quite restrictive."

This means that there are opposite-sex couples who also want the law changed so that they can have civil partnerships, something the 2004 Civil Partnership Act specifically prohibits.

This includes bisexuals. Yet the press continually calls these two proposed unions "gay marriage" and "straight civil partnerships".

Correctly they are "same-sex civil marriage" and "opposite-sex civil partnerships" (UK law doesn't use terms like "similar-sex" or "different-sex", and is quite certain all people are either men or women).

While it's possible to use the word "gay" to mean "LGB", that doesn't really work in this instance because some of those "gay" people are in opposite sex marriages already. And no, we don't just mean people who've married and then changed sexuality - one or more partners in a successful marriage can be happily bisexual.

Bisexuality doesn't mean cheating, just that a person's attraction isn't limited by gender, after all.

The way to equal rights here, we'd say, would be to take sexuality out of the equation. It's not being LGB that stops people marrying, it's turning up at the Register Office with a same-sex partner. If we had civil marriages and civil partnerships available to all regardless of the genders of the couple, then we'd automatically have it available to all gay, lesbian, straight and bisexual people.

This is not equal.

Do "gay organisations" understand bisexual issues?

This is a mess, and needs clearing up. Outrage and Stonewall are often seen as the two prongs of LGB activism, and they're both on the case on this issue.

On Outrage's "Equal Love" website the header states that their campaign is "the legal bid to overturn the twin bans on same-sex civil marriages and opposite-sex civil partnerships in the United Kingdom." Which does sound inclusive of bisexuals who fall into both categories. But on their "About" page they instead fall into the trap:

"The Equal Love campaign aims to challenge the twin bans on gay marriages and heterosexual civil partnerships, with eight couples filing applications at register offices and then, when they are refused, bringing a joint legal action in the courts to secure a change in the law."
(from Equal Love: About)

Following a recent blog post talking about "gay marriage" we emailed their head, Peter Tatchell to point out that this was exclusionary to bisexuals. He replied telling us "many of the public don't understand the terms same-sex and opposite-sex", so we have to say "gay and straight" and that we shouldn't worry - bisexual and trans people would still benefit from the law being changed.

We did already know we'd benefit. But we do think that every time sexuality is reduced to "gay or straight" it marginalises bisexuals and makes us invisible.

We don't think it's too hard for the public to understand, either.

Stonewall is even worse. They describe themselves as a campaigning and lobbying group fighting for the rights of gay, lesbian and bisexual people, but it often seems that they don't fully understand that bisexual isn't just a funny flavour of gay.

On their "Key Priorities 2010/2011" page, Stonewall sets out their stance clearly - they commit to:

"Securing equal legal treatment in areas where it doesn't already exist such as extension of the legal form of marriage to same-sex couples"
(from Stonewall - About Us)

Which looks like an accidental oversight at first. Some LGB couples are opposite-sex couples, some are same-sex, so surely the UK's richest LGB rights organisation should also be fighting for the right of bisexuals to have civil-partnerships with their opposite-sex partners? Otherwise, where's the equality?

When Stonewall released a draft response to the upcoming government consultation on the issue, we read it with interest. They say that same-sex couples should have the right to marry, which is very inclusive of bisexuals in same-sex relationships. But when it comes to opposite-sex civil partnerships the questions they're answering ask if heterosexual people should be allowed them.

Stonewall answer smugly that it's none of their business, they're representing LGB people. Why not go find some straights and ask them?

"Question 5: Should civil partnerships be extended to heterosexual people?

This is a matter for heterosexual people and Stonewall would recommend consulting with them and stakeholder organisations representing them."
(from Stonewall - Draft Response)

This has puzzled and incensed bisexual activists, as it seemed an ideal opportunity for an LGB organisation to point out how the question was accidentally excluding bisexuals. So we emailed the author, Ruth Hunt, to ask if it could be improved and offering to help. She replied explaining to us that Stonewall "wrote both the questions and the answers" to set out their position on the matter. They'll campaign for same-sex marriage only. Even though it's not just heterosexual people who currently are prevented from having civil partnerships. But rest assured, when the real consultation comes round, groups like us can put forward other views...

The omission on their "Key Priorities" page is deliberate. Stonewall will fight for the rights of bisexuals except ones in those inconvenient opposite-sex relationships (and expect someone else to do that, albeit without their budget).

The problem with thinking opposite-sex civil partnerships aren't an LGB issue is that most bisexuals are in opposite sex couples, regardless of who we're attracted to, the pool of available partners (people who are attracted to us) isn't evenly spread.

The way the law is currently written does not mention sexuality, but instead the genders of the people. Why can't the people campaigning for equality understand that the way to amend the law isn't to talk about "gay vs. straight" but instead to address the genders - remove the genders from the law and it's not just gay and straight men and women who'll have equal love, but all of us.

Equality isn't saying "gay and straight people can marry", or "same-sex and opposite-sex couples can marry".

Equality is saying "people can marry"

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