Deborah Williams and Dave Shaw first met as teenagers 35 years ago at school in Berkshire. Their paths crossed occasionally until the second year of university, when chance landed them in a shared house in London. “We fell very quickly in love and have been together ever since,” said Williams. This week, after 31 years together and with no interest in getting married, the couple will become one of the first in the country to have a heterosexual civil partnership.
From Tuesday, dozens of mixed-sex couples in England and Wales will enter into a civil union that will benefit from the same legal and financial protections offered to married couples.
Theresa May, when she was prime minister, announced that the law on civil partnerships would be amended following Rebecca Steinfeld and Charles Keidan’s win in the supreme court in June 2018 after a protracted campaign to be recognised as civil partners. Their legal victory has propelled a new movement.
“Marriage never felt relevant to us,” said Williams. “We were busy travelling, having a good time, living in London, and we prided ourselves on the fact that we were actively choosing to be together.”
The couple now live happily with their three dogs in Cornwall, where she is a psychologist and he is a web developer. Under the new legislation they registered their intent on 2 December and will sign their civil partnership on New Year’s Eve. Their witnesses will include a lesbian couple who converted their own civil partnership to marriage.
“We never married, because of the patriarchal, religious and conservative associations of traditional marriage,” said Shaw, “but we have always felt that we should be entitled to the same legal and tax protections of married couples.”
Williams agreed. “I don’t judge other couples who go down the marriage route, we’ve been to friends’ weddings and enjoyed them and celebrated with them. This just suits our own political and social ideals.”
The government estimates that as many as 84,000 ceremonies will be conducted within the first year as couples take advantage of a right originally legislated for LGBTQI couples, who were unable to marry until the 2013 Marriage Act. Unlike couples who choose to cohabit rather than marry, civil partners are entitled to the same property, pension, inheritance, tax and next-of-kin rights as married couples.
For Ben Piggott, 37, and Amy Grant, 35, who bought a house together in Walthamstow, east London, a couple of years ago, it was the administrative practicalities that prompted them to campaign for a civil union. The couple met working in publishing 12 years ago and have been together for seven, but marriage was never on the cards.
“We were lucky we had similar views,” said Grant. “The language around a civil partnership suits us and this feels like a completely modern and new way that is separate from the historical institution of marriage.”
Piggott said that, while they won’t have any sort of ceremony at the register office and will simply sign the papers, they will host a low-key party for family and friends later that week. “It is a really specific and particular decision for us and it definitely came from a feminist perspective, but unlike a marriage this feels like a clean slate for us – we can decide what we want it to be.”
The couple have had to explain their decision several times to family and friends. “A lot of people said ‘we don’t understand why you can’t just have a pared-back civil ceremony, what’s the difference?’” said Piggott. But after helping the couple campaign by writing letters to their MPs, friends and family warmed to the idea.
“We’ve now got friends who are having a civil partnership instead of a wedding in May,” said Grant. “And a couple of friends who, I think, took it a little personally and thought we were implying their marriage isn’t good in some way or ideal, but as soon as you say it’s more about supporting people having as many options as you want and that we absolutely love going to weddings, it gets easier.”
A different kind of union
What is it?
It is a legally recognised relationship between two people that offers the same benefits in terms of legal and tax protection as a conventional marriage.
How does it work?
Like marriages, couples must “give notice” of their intention to form a civil partnership at a register office at least 29 days before the civil union. The event must take place within 12 months.
Is there a ceremony?
There must be a registrar and two witnesses to a couple signing their partnership, but the couple can choose whether or not to make a statement or vows to one another.
How is it different to a marriage?
There is little practical difference but civil partners believe that they are entering an egalitarian partnership that does not have religious or patriarchal associations.