WHEN? Of late it’s the question most often waiting at the end of the phones that ring almost continuously at the offices of GLEN, the Gay and Lesbian Equality Network.
When will the Civil Partnership Bill be passed? When will it be law? When should I apply to the civil registrar? When can we publicly declare before the law our love and commitment? When will we be just like other couples?
After so many years of chipping away at the social and legal barriers to same-sex relationships, a little impatience to clear the last pieces of rubble is understandable.
For some callers, it’s excitement at the thought of the ceremony that’s got them dialling. At last they can tell mum to get to the hat shop and put the florist on notice – she’s finally getting her “day out”.
“We’re getting a lot of phone calls with people asking when’s it happening, when’s it coming in,” says Eoin Collins, GLEN’s director of policy change.
“People who were going to go up to Northern Ireland to register their partnership are deferring it now because they now have a reasonable chance of doing it here soon – they just want to know how soon.”
For other callers, the urgency is pressing far beyond the yearning for an exchange of rings and smiles for the camera.
“I know a couple where one partner is dying and they want recognition their relationship existed. It can’t come too soon for them.”
Realistically, because there remain a lot of loose legal and administrative ends to tie up, it will probably be next April before the first civil partnership ceremonies can take place and Collins believes there will be a queue.
“There is a backlog of people who want to have their relationships recognised for all sorts of reasons – for immigration purposes because they have a partner who can’t stay in the country, because they’re trying to sort out pensions or just because they want what most opposite sex couples want.”
That last reason was what prompted Don McLave and Wil Matthews from Dublin to travel to Belfast for their civil partnership ceremony in April last year. Together for seven years, they simply wanted to make their relationship official.
“The reason we did it was to make a declaration of our love in front of our loved ones,” says Wil, 38, a public servant.
“We have relatives who are not too well and we wanted to give them a day out before it was too late. Our families have been fabulously supportive of us and we wanted them to share in what we have.”
“Ideally we would have done it here first but we figured at least we would have civil partnership in some part of Ireland,” adds Don, 40, an IT consultant.
“We figured, under the Good Friday Agreement if nothing else, it would eventually have to be recognised in the south.”
They’ll get their wish once the Civil Partnership Bill becomes law because it will recognise partnerships registered in other jurisdictions but that won’t be the end of their wish list.
“We are very pleased with what’s happened,” says Wil. “It’s a very positive step for civil rights but it’s just a stepping stone. We want the right to full civil marriage for all and we are not going to stop campaigning until it’s law.”
Full civil marriage would, among other things, give the children of same-sex couples the same protections as children in opposite-sex partnerships. As it stands, and as things will continue under the new law, a partner may have co-parented a child from birth but because there are no biological ties, and no adoption rights, they are in law a stranger to that child with no legal right or responsibility to make decisions about the child’s care or include them in their will without tax liabilities arising.
“We would love to have children. We are a family as it is but we love to have children in our family,” Wil says.
“But the law as it stands is stopping us because we feel that if we brought a child into this world they would not have the same rights and entitlements as every other child. That’s a huge problem – people who already have children are in reality families yet they aren’t recognised as such. Children are forgotten in this law.”
In the meantime, Wil and Don are looking forward to opening a joint bank account for the first time – they can do so at present but as they are not a legal couple, it would automatically be frozen if anything happened either of them.
They also want to put their long-term financial affairs in order and they like to think that if either was hospitalised, as Wil was in the past, there would never again be a situation where Don was told to wait outside for his “friend” despite explaining the nature of their relationship.
Just now, they’re savouring the moment. “We were in the Dáil gallery for the four hours before the law was passed and at one point it suddenly dawned on me that this is a moment in history and we are part of it,” says Wil.
“It was such an important day and there was an immense feeling of relief combined with joy combined with occasion and the determination that we really do want to continue the fight for full civil marriage.”
When? is the next question, but they are optimistic the law will be changed again in time.
“I believe it will be an incremental approach,” says Don. “I think public opinion is ahead of political opinion on this one. It’s like, you can’t be a little bit pregnant. We don’t think you can be a little bit married.”
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