When the AIDS crisis struck in the 1980s, the lack of legal protections for same-sex partners was starkly illustrated in the sheer volume of stories of families who had previously disowned their sons emerging from the woodwork after their deaths and claiming everything they’d built with their partners. It Could Happen to You, Shane Bitney Crone’s heartbreaking short film on the subject, was remarkable only because it was one of many such stories to gain international attention.
Because “marriage” as an institution is frequently venerated by religious denominations, many of which falsely claim ownership of it, a compromised was established in the form of civil partnership. The first country to officially recognise same-sex relationships was Denmark, in 1989. Costa Rica, Greenland, the Netherlands, France, and parts of the U.S. and Spain followed suit in the 1990s. By 2010, almost 30 different countries (including their territories) officially recongised some form of same-sex domestic partnership. The number currently stands at 41, although some laws have now been overwritten by the introduction of same-sex marriage.
Civil partnerships varied in legal definition from country to country. The terminology was equally varied: civil partnerships could also be domestic partnerships, civil unions, registered partnerships, significant relationships, reciprocal beneficiary relationships, adult interdependent relationships, life partnerships, stable unions, civil solidarity pacts, and more almost beyond counting. What they never were, and could never be, were marriages.
The use of the word “marriage” was a contentious one, with many opponents arguing that there was no tangible difference between a CP and a marriage (although if that were the case, why did they fight so hard to prevent same-sex couples from being married?). The U.S. proved the fallacy of this, with its patchwork of different state laws and federal and state governments each having different requirements before a relationship was officially recongised. A couple in a civil partnership in a state which recognised their relationship might have been able to file joint state taxes, but received no federal benefit, as indeed was the case with Edie Windsor, who eventually took the federal government to court in order to overturn DOMA and have her lawful marriage recognised at state level (a ruling without which I wouldn’t have been able to enter the U.S. on a fiancee visa, so thank you Edie!).
As more and more nations embrace same-sex marriage, the matter of what to do with previous civil partnership legislation is now being debated. Some countries have “upgraded” CPs to automatically become marries; some require existing couples go through another ceremony if they want their CP converted. In the UK, where both CPs and marriages are now available to same-sex couples, a campaign is afoot to open CPs up to heterosexual couples who reject the institution of marriage, but still want formal legal protection for their relationship. The movement has garnered enough attention it was debated in parliament in October 2015.
Whether or not a sizable number of people would prefer a civil partnership to a marriage is debatable. Since the introduction of same-sex marriage in the UK, the number of CPs fell by 70%, and almost 8,000 couples opted to convert their CP to a marriage in the first six months after same-sex marriage was introduced.