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Matthew Parris

Gay civil partners should resist pressure to 'upgrade' to marriage

10 August 2013

9:00 AM

10 August 2013

9:00 AM

Apparently I’ve proposed to my civil partner. He claims that on BBC Radio 2, on the Jeremy Vine show (he thinks it was the JV show) I expressed myself in terms which presumed his prior acceptance. I can’t remember a thing about it — on live radio one does tend to throw these thoughts out heedlessly — but my partner swears I said, ‘Oh yes, well I suppose we’ll have to get an upgrade.’ He found this a graceless way of popping the question, and has forbidden me from using the term ‘upgrade’ again.

Ah well. But in that case, if not ‘upgrade’, what shall we call it? ‘Conversion’ appears to be the word gaining ground among gay friends, an expression carrying (for me) stronger associations with religion or loft-improvement than with the married state, but an expression which will have to do, not least because it’s technically quite accurate: for civil partners, the marriage conversions that should start taking place by next summer will not require a new civil ceremony, but will be more like a routine planning application guaranteed to go through on the nod. You just have to fill in some forms and pay a fee.

Which brings me to the question that — now the act of parliament is in place — existing civil partners will be asking with increasing urgency as the year turns, for this has slipped into law far faster than many of us expected. Does a partnership-to-marriage conversion require another wedding?

The Spectator’s Mary will soon be receiving letters from socially insecure gays, begging for guidance. ‘Dear Mary,’ they will write, ‘my partner and I have decided to convert our civil partnership into marriage next year. We had a rather lavish wedding-style party to celebrate the civil partnership last year. Now comes the possibility of a proper wedding party next year to celebrate the conversion. Should we? What will friends expect?’

I am not Mary, who will offer her own counsel. But if I were (say) Dorothy, and had my own Dear Dorothy column for bewildered gays, this would be my reply…

‘Darlings, your civil partnership ceremony and wedding-style party were a terrific success. Some of us were honoured to be among many dear friends enveloping you in their love, support and affection at the Crouch End Register Office. We were delighted you went for the top-of-the-range option on the local council’s ceremony menu. We were touched by the poetry and music. We adored the readings from Khalil Gibran. The harp was genius. The tremor in your voices as you exchanged vows was profoundly touching, and we don’t mind confessing we shed a tear ourselves as you read out the lovely haikus you’d composed to each other.

‘And the party afterwards was awfully jolly. We were honoured to appear in the many group photographs for which we stood around beforehand for an hour or two. We loved the lavish dinner and felt privileged to be seated with your aunts from Rhyl; we hope we helped bring them round to an understanding that the occasion was a happy one and that your poor parents would not be turning in their graves. The eight speeches were so hilarious that three-quarters of an hour of oratory seemed to pass in minutes.

‘The dancing was a hoot. What an inspired idea to hire that talented Bucks Fizz tribute band! The whole day must have set you back a good £20,000. Truly, those eight genial hours, all indoors on that sunny Saturday, will number among our most treasured memories. And we hope our gift of a complete set of Alexander McQueen bed linen, selected at some expense from the items on your wedding list at Liberty, will number among yours. All in all, it was a fabulous day.

‘But, darlings, not again. One was super. One was tremendous. But, please, not a second. How much more fabulousness can we take? How much more is there to say? How much more joy is possible? Our cup runneth over already. We’ve been to a score or more of civil partnerships over the last few years and they’ve all been thrilling — but to the best of our knowledge every one of these couples is planning to convert…

‘That’s at least 20 more Saturdays, all with the same people. That could be a tenth of all the Saturdays left in some of your older friends’ lives. That could be £2,000 in further gifts to friends who’ve had gifts already.

‘Your sort-of-wedding party last year was a total winner. For all our sakes, quit while you’re ahead. Send out a card saying that in these times of national economic anxiety you feel another party would be ostentatious, and instead you’ve made a modest private donation to a small, village-based Congolese charity. That will do. Honestly, that will do.’

Perhaps I overstate my case — and I risk offending friends whose civil-partnership parties I really have enjoyed — but I’m in deadly earnest. Which way the fashionable view tips over the next year will decide the weekend fate of tens of thousands of us in the years ahead. On this question of gay etiquette, let the trumpet give a certain sound right away, before the invitations are printed.

I realise there’s no precedent, but perhaps the closest parallel is with the case where a heterosexual couple has divorced, and then later decided to remarry. The most famous of these was Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. Taylor’s eight marriages involved eight ceremonies and eight parties, with varying degrees of ostentation; but she kept her re-marriage ceremony to Burton reasonably private. In Noël Coward’s Private Lives we are left to guess at how lavish the remarriage (to each other) of the previously divorced newlyweds, each on honeymoon with a new spouse, is likely to prove; but one’s sense of Coward’s instincts is that the occasion would have been private, intimate and small.

Were I to disappear, be taken for dead, observe from afar my own grief-stricken friends at my funeral, then later decide to return and surprise them, I should absolutely insist in my will that none of my friends was to go through all this again. One funeral is quite enough for one person. So is one wedding for two people. Fellow gays, take note.

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