Mark Vernon, in "Coming out as friends" (The Guardian 28 Oct.) says that although civil partnerships will not be in effect in Britain until 21 December, commercialisation is already attempting to force them "into confetti-lined boxes embossed with the word marriage." But, Vernon asks,
is this rush to the neon altar really what gay men and lesbians want, and is it the best institution that civil partnerships can be?
There is a great risk that the answer to both these questions will turn out to be no-for reasons that have to do with the individual, the commercial and the philosophical.
Talking to friends in same-sex relationships who are thinking about civil partnership, I sense a profound hesitancy. Gay men and women are still often wary of public declarations of affection; the tone of the debate may have changed beyond recognition since the 1980s, but there is wisdom in caution when the world opens its arms to your love. I suspect that many may sign the forms, just to make life (and death) easier, but they probably won’t ring the bells. [. . .]
This is very much my concern. Present laws in Australia do not allow full sharing of property, benefits and entitlements between members of same-sex couples in the way they do for opposite-sex couples, married or de facto. And there is essentially one man preventing that-Prime Minister John Winston Howard.
So what kind of relationship could civil partnerships be an expression of? The heart of the matter is, I think, that relationships between gay men and women are different from those between married couples. [. . . ] [I]t is about social history and the way in which the personal is political. In marriage, this is still caught up with notions of possession, for all that many would have it otherwise. Witness the persistent nostalgia for acts like the father giving away the bride.
For gay couples there is little sense of this. For example, gay men and women routinely remain friends with former lovers in ways that would be thought dodgy, even treacherous, in the married world. And I am much more likely to do something without my partner, like go on holiday, than my married friends are.
So what is the best model for civil partnerships? In a word, friendship. If erotic love is about having another and them having you, friendship is about knowing another and being known by them: close friends become "one soul in two bodies", as Montaigne put it-rather different from the nuptial notion of two bodies becoming one.
If this philosophy of friendship is right, it begs the question as to what ceremony is appropriate to express it. In the medieval period the church, ironically, provided the answer: so-called sworn friendship was a religious vow, made during mass. Clearly, the social recognition this afforded would not carry today. But the old practice stretches the imagination as to what is possible now.
It would be wonderful for such ceremony to be available for those who seek it. But I don’t feel a great need of it myself. I’m not sure that ceremony of itself makes commitment truly stronger.
This might not only benefit homosexuals. Consider the contemporary decline in the institution of marriage. If people’s ideal relationship today could be called sexual friendship, then it is notable that this is an element far from explicit in the older, possession-oriented institution. If civil partnership ceremonies can resist looking like maudlin imitations of weddings, they would show that friendship is worthy of public commitment. Contrary to what conservatives have said, they may even contribute to the reinvention of marriage.
It could be argued that to base civil partnership on friendship would be to push it back into the closet, since friendship is largely a private affair. However, friendship is itself coming out of the closet in our networked days and mobile lives. Civil partnerships could be an opportunity to shape, and not merely be shaped by, this trend in society too.
Mark Vernon is the author of The Philosophy of Friendship