By Jemima Kingsley
Are you in a long-term romantic relationship? Is she your wife, your girlfriend, or your better half? Is he your partner, him indoors, your significant other, or your spouse? Are you married? How much of the way you define your relationship is determined by your legal status? How much is it defined by the language you use?
In December the potential vocabulary (and legal status) available to gay and lesbian couples in the UK will change with the introduction of civil partnership. The new law allows lesbians and gay men, in all but name, to marry. And it’s the all but name bit which leads me to wonder how important the language of marriage is.
As an example, was it news to you that civil partnership carries the same rights and legal implications as marriage? It is to most people I tell. It’s clear to me that civil partnership has been named in order to avoid the religious implications of marriage (one of the few differences between civil partnership and marriage is that civil partnership ceremonies cannot be held in religious venues), but this use of language has also made it hard to communicate the legitimacy of the partnerships. The shorthand of marriage is lost in the new language and, until the reality of civil partnership becomes established, I think it unlikely that anyone will take it nearly as seriously as they take marriage. So, what to do?
"I’m getting married!"
As a simple solution it would be possible for gay and lesbian couples to ignore the legal terms and just adopt the language of marriage for their civil partnerships. The shorthand is convenient. Invitations could go out inviting friends to their marriage, they could have a wedding day, the fathers of the brides could give away their daughters. She could be a wife. She could have a wife. And of course some gay people already use ‘wife’ or ‘husband’ to describe the commitment of their relationship, and have made headway in gaining acceptance by using language that people recognise.
It seems to me, though, that the language of marriage suggests the traditions of marriage, in particular when it comes to the ceremony of the wedding, with its implied gender types and religious elements, which sit uncomfortably with the reality of homosexual relationships. Of course, if the law had called civil partnership marriage, that would offer the opportunity for gay men and lesbians to participate in redefining marriage for the community as a whole. But this is exactly what the law tries to avoid by its use of language and we have to accept that the religious associations with marriage make it a complicated concept to play with. Given this, I see no virtue in using language lesbians and gay men can’t own, and annoying and distressing people in the process.
"Sorry Mum, sorry Dad, I’m not getting married. I am, however, getting Civilly Partnered!"
The language of civil partnership, however, is horribly formal and brings to mind all the legal associations and none of the emotional ones. It makes me think of inheritance tax and housing rights (yes, important), but not of two people spending a future together through thick and thin, come what may. Again, this is deliberate, but it’s also an opportunity. No one yet knows what civil partnerships look like or how they work. No one yet has a set way of going about the partnership. With a little imagination, the next few years could be really exciting in terms of defining relationships and partnerships outside the traditions of how marriage is meant to work. And I don’t mean a radical redefinition of the relationship itself (I don’t think people will suddenly stop wanting to live together and keep cats), but I do mean a rethink about what’s important when you make a commitment to another person. Who should be at the ceremony, where should it be, what should be said, and how can that best be done? And how does that commitment make a difference to the way you are perceived by your friends and relatives and by society as a whole? It’s a real opportunity, and one that many heterosexual people would doubtless jump at.
Great as this may be, it still leaves us with some complications around language. Once you’ve been through the ceremony, how do you refer to your civil partner? You could refer to them as your civil partner, but it doesn’t roll off the tongue or have anything like the ease of husband or wife. Or you could use husband or wife, but why borrow this inaccurate language when you have a legal relationship that is as valid as marriage? You could use spouse, which I quite like despite its formal sound (the legal implications are even helpful, I think). And you could say partner with absolute legitimacy. Partner might be ideal, in fact, if only there were some way to differentiate you, with your legal status, from the current ambiguous range of ways in which partner is used – business partner, opposite sex boyfriend or girlfriend, and same sex boyfriend or girlfriend. There’s no doubt meanings can change, so it’s possible that partner will shift to be associated with civil partnerships, in the same way that ‘gay’ is hardly ever used to mean glad anymore. Given time, in fact, ‘civil partnership’ could even come to mean something romantic, exciting and long term, in the same way that marriage does.
However it plays out, the language is bound to shift with the new legal opportunities. Gay men and lesbians entering into civil partnerships will either seriously redefine the meaning of existing terms (marriage, wife, etc.) or will add new meaning to a range of terms currently either overly-legalistic (civil partnership, spouse) or ambiguous (partner).
So, I’m curious. Which would you and your partner/husband/wife prefer? Either way, now is the time to make it happen.