U.K. Grants Gay Couples Equal Rights

Vote comes week after Brits invade Manhattan for fund-raiser

The United Kingdom’s civil partnership legislation cleared its final hurdle in Parliament on November 17 when the House of Lords defeated a “wrecking” amendment to the bill by a vote of 251 to 136.

The bill becomes law on November 18—the last day of the session—but does not go into effect for 12 months, at which time same-sex couples will be able to register their partnerships and will receive all the rights and benefits of marriage.

“We’re absolutely delighted,” said Alan Wardle, parliamentary director of the gay lobbying group Stonewall, which made the bill its top legislative priority.

Passage of the partnership bill brings British law in line with most of the rest of Western Europe and Canada in terms of according legal recognition to same-sex relationships. Only the Netherlands, Belgium, and seven jurisdictions in Canada have opened marriage to gay couples—and Spain seems to be in the process of doing so. All of Scandinavia, Germany and France have substantial forms of partner recognition while the rest of Europe, particularly in the east, is wrangling with the issue.

Last week, the House of Commons, led by Tony Blair’s Labour government, passed the bill by a 381 to 74 vote, winning a majority of Conservative and Liberal Democrat votes as well. The Tories proposed an unsuccessful amendment to broaden the definition of partners to include siblings living together or an adult child who has lived with a parent for more than 12 years. Labour and Stonewall were not against the principle of protecting other family configurations, but felt that specific measures should be brought forth under separate legislation.

It was touch and go for the bill leading up to the final vote in the House of Lords. Stonewall was disconcerted that the government placed an anti-hunting bill on the same day as the vote on partnerships, risking even more conservative peers showing up for the debate. But in the end, the gay bill passed overwhelmingly.

Not everyone in the gay movement was thrilled with the outcome. Brett Lock of the Coalition for Marriage Equality, which does not include Stonewall, said that the bill “perpetuates and extends discrimination,” adding, “It should be rewritten to ensure legal rights for all relationships of mutual care and commitment.” The group also wants an end on the ban on gay people marrying.

Veteran activist Peter Tatchell of the direct action group Outrage! said in October, “The Civil Partnership Bill creates a form of sexual apartheid, with one law for heterosexuals and another for gays. Same-sex couples are excluded from marriage and opposite-sex partners are excluded from civil partnerships. This is not equality. It reinforces and perpetuates discrimination.”

Supporters of the Stonewall group coincidentally were in New York City this past weekend for the second of their annual Equality Walks, for which they receive sponsorship pledges. Eighty members of the organization marched from midtown, up to Central Park, down to Ground Zero, and into the Village where they celebrated at their revolutionary namesake, the Stonewall Inn. The group raised $167,312, according to David Isaacs, co-chair of the group’s board.

Leading the walk was Amy Lamé, a British TV star who emigrated from Keyport, New Jersey 12 years ago. She has performed her one-woman show, “Gay Man Trapped in a Lesbian Body,” been a travel reporter and is a regular on a British daily talk show, called “Loose Women.” She credited Stonewall with enabling her to stay in Britain with her partner and said the progress on the partnership bill was attributable to the sense of “good will and citizenship” in her new country, unlike the many American states that ban legal recognition of gay relationships. Lamé, a practicing Christian, noted however that America is “ahead in other ways,” citing the Episcopal Church’s embrace of the gay bishop, Gene Robinson, in contrast to the Church of England’s resistance to gay inclusiveness.

Eric Jones, 19, from a gay youth support group in Lancashire, walked all over Manhattan draped in a big rainbow flag.

“I’m here, I’m queer, and I’m going to do this walk,” he said passing through Herald Square, noting he had not been subjected to any adverse reactions from onlookers.

Rev. Bernard Lynch, an American citizen and former New Yorker who lives in London with his spouse, Billy Desmond, was frightened by the advances of the religious right in the 2004 election, but encouraged by progress for gay people in his homeland.

“Ireland has ceased to be a royal state and it’s wonderful,” he said. As for England, he said, “It’s not anti-religious. Religion is just irrelevant there.”

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