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Last Updated: Wednesday, 14 September 2005, 20:00 GMT 21:00 UK
'Life changing but long overdue'
By Clare Babbidge
BBC News

A publicity campaign has been launched to highlight details of new laws allowing the UK's first "gay marriages". The BBC News website asks two couples what the law means to them.

Paula Burke (left) and Joanna Sedley
Paula Burke and Joanna Sedley are delighted with the law change
Westminster Register Office and its steps have been media stages on many occasions over the years - the 1969 wedding of Paul McCartney and Linda Eastman and the nuptials of Oasis' Liam Gallagher and Patsy Kensit a generation later among them.

And on a sunny September day in 2005, the grandiose central London building again became part of a small slice of history as the government launched its publicity drive for a new law giving gay partnerships the same legal rights as heterosexual marriages.

The mood at the launch was warm and happy as Deputy Equality Minister Meg Munn and Westminster Council Leader Simon Milton were joined by five gay couples who plan to register their partnerships.

However, scratch the surface and behind the positive mood lies years of campaigning, frustration and individual examples of how many gay people have felt their relationships have been socially and legally ignored.

Long wait

At 70 years old and with a partner for 22 years, Dorian Aroyo says he has been waiting for such a law for a long time.

"It's technically very important and financially, politically and legally very important," he said. "But it is long, long, overdue. Many people have said that to us, including my family."

The Civil Partnership Act, which was passed into law last November, means gay couples can sign an official document in front of a registrar, giving their union legal recognition. Mr Aroyo believes it will also "socially sanction" his relationship.

For his partner, Andrew Cooper, 63, among the most important aspects is being able to put the "civil partnership" status on official forms in the future.

"I don't feel single, I don't behave as a single man but nevertheless I have to put in forms that I am single," he said.

For this couple, the new law brings legal recognition to a union they believed would be long lasting within weeks of meeting.

Andrew Cooper (left) and Dorian Aroyo
Andrew Cooper and Dorian Aroyo have been a couple for 22 years

Mr Cooper said that after two to three weeks of meeting, the couple opened a joint bank account which they called their "marriage lives".

Both over 40 when they met, for Mr Cooper it was "instinct" and for Mr Aroyo it was "experience" that taught them they should be together.

The couple plan to 'wed' at Westminster on 21 December - the first day it is legally possible.

However, Mr Aroyo said this won't be followed by a big reception as they already held one after registering their relationship with Ken Livingstone's London Partnership Register three years ago.

Mr Aroyo, an artist, who formerly worked in architecture, said: "It wouldn't be the same a second time. There are only so many times everyone can cry into tissues."

'Long way'

However, Joanna Sedley and Paula Burke are among couples who will be throwing a wedding party.

Before this, if something happened to me my pension would just die with me
Joanna Sedley

Miss Sedley, 37, said the new law "meant everything."

"We've campaigned for this. It's life changing," she said. "We didn't think it would happen in our lifetimes."

She said she believed things had "come a long way" considering only a few years ago Section 28 stopped "teachers from answering pupils' questions" about homosexuality.

She said the legal rights, including giving gay people the benefit of a dead partner's pension and exemption from inheritance tax, were crucial.

"Before this, if something happened to me my pension would just die with me," she said.

Government minister Meg Munn and Westminster Council leader Simon Milton with five couples
Five gay couples attended the publicity launch at Westminster

For Paula, giving her partner of eight years next-of kin status in hospitals was also a key point.

"When I go to hospital, Joanna doesn't have the same rights as my parents.

"Although they (the hospitals) have been good to us, really we want it legally written."

Some gay rights campaigners have criticised the law for stopping short of full marriage, but the couple said they were "very happy" with it and felt it went far enough.

The civil partnerships will be able to take place at premises which are already licensed for marriages.

The young couple will take advantage of this by holding a party for family and close friends at London's Ritz after their ceremony in February.

Government minister Ms Munn accepted that the new law was overdue and said it has come about now as "people's attitudes have changed over time".

"Generally speaking, some people have resisted the change, but I think overwhelmingly it has been positive," she said.

"When you talk to someone who has been with someone for 39 years you can't get more committed than that, and for them a civil partnership has not come a moment too soon."


SEE ALSO
Gay couple aim for wedding date
29 Aug 05 |  England
Mayor attends gay 'marriage'
05 Sep 01 |  UK News
Section 28 to be repealed
18 Sep 03 |  UK Politics

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