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Monday, 18 September, 2000, 15:41 GMT 16:41 UK
Gay marriage: In the pink
Dutch activists, left, and Sophie Ward and Rene Brannan
As the Liberal Democrats back same-sex weddings, BBC News Online looks at why the institution of marriage matters to gay-rights activists.

When actress Sophie Ward married her lover in August, the ceremony matched the template for a celebrity wedding in all respects but one.

Held in London's exclusive Groucho Club, the happy couple exchanged rings and solemn vows under the gaze of friends, family and a team from OK! magazine.

The brides exchanged rings
The glossy celebrity rag reportedly paid a six-figure sum for a 16-page spread.

Well-known faces witnessing the event included Ms Ward's father, the actor Simon Ward, fellow thespian Paul McGann, and comedian Rhona Cameron, of the BBC Two sitcom Rhona.

So far, so predictable. But the ceremony was not recognised in English law because the bride took another woman as her partner - American writer Rena Brannan.

Official recognition

What gay rights activists in the UK want is a partnership registration scheme, similar to those in parts of Europe which allow some of the tax, legal and social benefits previously afforded only to married couples.

Gay couples in Vermont will qualify for tax breaks
Last week, the Netherlands enacted a law granting rights to same-sex couples surpassing any other country, allowing them an official wedding service, adopt Dutch children, and divorce through the court system.

In the US, Vermont this year became the first state to approve civil unions for couples of the same sex.

In the UK, the Liberal Democrats have become the first mainstream political party in the UK to back gay marriages.

The party would give gay couples the same rights as heterosexuals over inheritance, adoption and property rights.

Just a lodger

In the eyes of the law, even same-sex couples who have been together for years are not recognised as official partners.

If, for instance, says Mark Watson of news website, one falls seriously ill, his or her live-in lover has no more legal rights than a lodger.

"If you break down a marriage ceremony, there are two elements to it," Mr Watson says.

If you are lesbian or gay, you can get the same rights, but it's a lot more complicated

Gillian Rodgerson
"There's the ceremonial stage - the public affirmation of your love, which same-sex couples have been doing for years - and the signing of the legal contract which entitles you to share certain rights and responsibilities."

London mayor Ken Livingstone has pledged to set up a civil ceremony for gay couples to have their union officially - if only symbolically - recognised.

In a speech at London's Mardi Gras 2000 in July, Mr Livingstone said the move would show that Londoners "value all loving relationships as equal".

During the gay pride festival, couples were able to have their relationships blessed by the Reverend Neil Thomas and clergy from Bournemouth's Metropolitan Community Church.

Automatic rights

Gillian Rodgerson, the editor of lesbian magazine Diva, has said that straight couples have it easy when it comes to getting the blessing of the state.

"You stand up, you have a ceremony, you sign one document and all the rights and obligations are automatic.

Lei Lennaerts and Mark Wagenbuur
Happy couple: Lei Lennaerts and Mark Wagenbuur
"If you are lesbian or gay, there are many ways you can get the same rights, but it takes a lot longer and it's a lot more complicated: you have to fill out powers of attorney and guardianship agreements for your children."

Mr Watson says that granting same-sex unions official recognition is a timely move.

A number of organisations are looking at granting gay couples the same pension rights and staff discounts they give married employees - and Sainsburys is also considering giving gay couples paternity rights

Next April, paperwork for the children's tax credit, which replaces the married couples allowance, will require applicants to refer to their to spouses as "partners", not husbands and wives.

And a legal bid to get recognition of same-sex marriages is expected once the Human Rights Act becomes law in the UK in October.

Dutch activists Lei Lennaerts and Mark Wagenbuur, who watched the Dutch parliament pass the new legislation, said they would formally wed.

But Mr Wagenbuur said they now faced another hurdle: ''We don't know who should ask whom.''

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See also:

01 Jul 00 | UK Politics
Livingstone pledges gay 'marriage'
26 Apr 00 | Americas
Vermont's gays win parity
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