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Same-sex marriage shows civil partnerships were ‘never enough’

As the first gay and lesbian couples in England and Wales prepare to walk down the aisle this Saturday (29 March) to get legally married, research from the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) shows that civil partnerships could never have met the demands for full equality between gay and straight couples. In the latest edition of the ESRC magazine Society Now, Dr Mike Thomas, Social Policy Lecturer, argues that civil partnerships were a useful stepping-stone, but were always a poor substitute for marriage.

"In terms of recognising couple relationships, marriage is the only game in town," said Dr Thomas. "Marriage is engrained in law, culture and social rituals, and it was a tall order for civil partnerships to gain social and cultural standing alongside such a key institution.


"Civil partnerships looked like a fairly bold move back in 2005, but they already appear inadequate as a long-term solution, as reflected in the government's decision to legislate for marriage equality," he said


The study, at Cardiff University, found that same-sex couples in the UK welcomed the introduction of civil partnerships in 2005, as they provided them with much needed legal rights, and made them feel more included and recognised by society.

Couples with children said that civil partnerships allowed them to be seen and officially recognised as families, offering them a status their children and others could understand and relate to. Civil partnership ceremonies also provided opportunities for family members as well as friends, neighbours and work colleagues to acknowledge gay and lesbian relationships. For same-sex couples this was often a source of great satisfaction, affirming and cementing long-standing relationships within their social networks.

But other couples felt that, for them, civil partnerships failed to have the same meaning as marriage. The words 'civil partnership' were unfamiliar, sounded bureaucratic and lacked the social status and cultural meanings that went with marriage. People weren't sure whether they could say they were getting married, or whether they had to awkwardly say they were getting 'civilly partnered'. In the early days, some couples even had to explain to family members, hoteliers and caterers what a civil partnership was when booking their ceremony.

The government is currently consulting on whether to abolish civil partnerships, open them up to straight couples, or keep them as they are. Although civil partnerships may well be pushed aside by same-sex marriage, it is important not to overlook the contribution that civil partnerships made towards the greater visibility of same-sex couples in UK society, and to challenging negative social attitudes towards homosexuality.

"Civil partnerships performed an important role in providing legal rights and increasing the visibility of same-sex couples," says Dr Thomas.


"Setting up a parallel status to marriage was probably never going to work in the long term because marriage is such an important social and cultural institution. However without civil partnerships we wouldn't have got to same-sex marriage in 2014, so if we think about civil partnerships as a stepping-stone to fuller equality, they have done their job," he adds.


However it is important to note that, he said, just because gay and lesbian couples can now get married, this doesn't mean that the fight against inequality is over, as a significant minority still see same sex relationships as socially unacceptable.

Further information

For further information contact:

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Notes for editors

  1. This release is based on the findings from 'Same-Sex Marriage, Civil Partnerships and Stigma: Coming in from the Cold?' funded by the Economic and Social Research Council.
  2. Dr Mike Thomas was the lead researcher on the project at Cardiff University. Dr Thomas is now a Lecturer in Social Work within the School of Social Policy, Sociology and Social Research at the University of Kent.
  3. The project examined lesbian and gay couples' attitudes towards civil partnerships and same-sex marriage, as part of a comparative study involving 45 same sex couples in the UK, the USA and Canada.
  4. The Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) is the UK's largest organisation for funding research on economic and social issues. It supports independent, high-quality research which has an impact on business, the public sector and the third sector. The ESRC's total budget for 2013/14 is £212 million. At any one time the ESRC supports over 4,000 researchers and postgraduate students in academic institutions and independent research institutes.
  5. The ESRC confirms the quality of its funded research by evaluating research projects through a process of peers review. This research has been graded as good.
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