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Last Updated: Monday, 5 December 2005, 09:50 GMT
39 years of waiting
By Dominic Casciani
BBC News community affairs

Roger Lockyer and Percy Steven
Roger and Percy: Already signed unofficial London register

With civil partnerships now legal, one gay couple tells the BBC what it means to be the first in the queue - one they've waited four decades to come to an end.

They've been waiting 39 years, but Roger Lockyer and Percy Steven are about to make honest men of each other.

When 21 December comes around, the London couple will be at the front of the queue at Westminster Register Office to become a legally-recognised, officially sanctioned, Parliamentary-approved Civil Partnership. Or, perhaps more simply, a happily married gay couple - in all but name.

A few short legal ticks and then, together with their witnesses, Roger and Percy will toast their little bit of legal history over lunch at a favourite little venue.

December marks a sea-change in British society with the 2004 Civil Partnership Act coming into force.

The legislation allows gay and lesbian couples to declare themselves permanently together in proceedings which, in every legal regard, accord them the rights which married people take for granted.

'Long overdue'

So when Roger, 77, and Percy, 66, quietly step into the register office and pick up the pen to sign their names, it will be not only with a sense of satisfaction but also with a feeling of "about bloody time".

There was a pause as my mother took this in - and I waited and eventually said, 'So what's it to be? A cup of tea or a Scotch?'
Percy on telling his mother he was gay
"This really is quite long overdue," says Roger, a retired professor of history at Royal Holloway College. "It really has been a long time to wait for what, quite frankly, should have been recognised as our normal right.

"It means that I am not going to worry anymore about things like inheritance of our home, were I to die first. We both know of people who have lost their home because of the inheritance tax bill when one partner has died."

Married couples expect part of their pension, and all of their assets, to be transferred to their spouse on death. That will now also apply to gay couples in civil partnerships.

Family rights

Another major issue is next of kin rights - something close to the heart of Roger and Percy.

Brighton and Hove: 510
Westminster: 140
Manchester: 88
Newcastle: 80
Birmingham: 70
Leeds: 60
Edinburgh: 76
Sheffield: 58
Nottingham: 50
Glasgow: 30
Cardiff: 24
Belfast: 20
Liverpool 20
Londonderry: 6
Aberdeen: 5

"Eight years ago Roger had to go into hospital for a week," says Percy. "I was along visiting and this doctor, this medical god, came through with his acolytes.

"Roger asked if I could stay and the doctor asked who I was. When Roger said I was his partner, he said, 'What? Your business partner?' and looked quite horrified and askance.

"I thought 'well f - you' and offered him my seat with a smile. It was only later that one of his interns came back and said to us that they were deeply ashamed by his behaviour."

That kind of event has increasingly become the exception. In practice, many organisations have recognised gay relationships while waiting for the law to catch up, particularly in the light of the 1998 Human Rights Act and related European Union anti-discrimination measures.

It's fantastic that everyone can now enjoy this long term commitment
Cheryl Shilvock, Surrey

But for Roger and Percy it has been 40 years of waiting. They were introduced through a matchmaking friend who thought the young academic and Percy, a South-Africa born actor, would get on like a house on fire. They soon realised they wanted to spend their lives together.

Their professional lives have taken them around Britain and the United States where, they say, they found attitudes more liberal than at home.

Older, but militant

But it has been the official recognition they have been waiting for.

Same sex couples recognised as legal partners
Similar rights to married couples
Inheritance and pensions benefits etc
Court-based dissolution similar to divorce
22,000 expected to sign up in first five years

"After 40 years of being together I don't think that it needs a declaration - our love does not need proclaiming as such," says Percy. "But here is another importance in making our fellow citizens aware that there are other people with other lifestyles in the universe.

"As I have got older I have got much more militant because this is a political statement as well as an emotional statement."

Roger says: "We have suffered very little discrimination during our time together but it is important to us to know that we will now be legally kin. It used to be said that homosexuals are some kind of horrible people who cannot have any kind of meaningful relationship.

"Younger generations have a different perspective on this. Kids are much more willing to say that they are gay and that is perhaps because society, and their age group, has changed its attitudes."

Roger suggests that a crucial social change may come in how the public construe the "gay scene". Hedonistic lifestyles in post-war London were driven by the simple fact that relationships were, until the late 1960s, illegal and until now unrecognised.

While the government's 1957 Wolfenden Report recommended decriminalising homosexuality (concluding it was "not a disease") it took a decade to get through Parliament, albeit with a higher age of consent.

"Before Wolfenden, if you were a bachelor, that was that, the assumption was you would get married," he says. "But after the report, if it were said that you were a confirmed bachelor, then it was 'hey ho, we really know what you are'."

Men of his generation were subject to blackmail - particularly those involved in politics or business - while the police would send the vice squad in to raid clubs, the assumption being that anyone who attended was involved in corrupting the public morals.

That sense of "something to be ashamed of" did not end with legal reform in the 1960s. Staff at one popular gay club in London regularly warned patrons in the 1990s that the photographers outside were not taking pictures to promote the venue.

Today, as couples seek partnership, the wider public gaze may shift from night clubs to the simple and mundane things of ordinary life: couples being couples, living out their lives in society. This may prove crucial to undermining remaining prejudices.

Letting the family know

In Percy's case, he never discussed his sexuality with his father, but believes he always knew.

His mother however had to confront the issue when she visited from South Africa soon after the couple had bought a home.

"She asked 'So where are you sleeping', assuming that I had temporarily moved from my room to create a guest bedroom," recalls Percy.

" 'That's my bedroom there'. 'You're sharing with Roger while I am here?' she said. 'No that is our bedroom, mother.

"Well, there was a pause as my mother took this in. And I waited and eventually said, 'So what's it to be? A cup of tea or a Scotch?' "

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