Civil partnerships launched in Belfast; rest of UK to follow
Supporters and opponents make views known
BELFAST -- Two lesbians became the first gay couple in the United Kingdom to win legal recognition under a civil partnership yesterday, a ceremony that attracted scorn from evangelical Christian protesters but praise from gay rights activists.
Grainne Close, a social worker from Northern Ireland, and Shannon Sickels, a playwright from New York, were the first of several hundred gay couples exchanging vows nationwide this week -- including Elton John and his longtime partner.
''We are delighted. Here's to many more," Sickels said after she and Close became the first public celebrants of a legally binding gay partnership at Belfast City Hall.
Northern Ireland, which in 1982 was the last region in the United Kingdom to legalize homosexuality, is now the first to grant gay couples the same legal protections as married heterosexuals. Scotland was to follow today, and England and Wales tomorrow.
The measure is already in force in many other European countries. In the United States, more than a dozen states recognize some form of domestic partnerships or civil unions, but 11 states voted in November 2004 to ban gay marriage.
After a 30-minute ceremony featuring such songs as Dolly Parton's ''Touch Your Woman," Sickels and Close posed for photographers displaying matching commitment rings of diamond and platinum, then dashed off for a reception. Scores of family, friends, and gay rights activists tossed flowers and rainbow-colored ribbons in their path.
''This is about making a choice to have our civil rights acknowledged and respected and protected as any human being," said Sickels, 27, who met her 32-year-old partner in New York four years ago.
But in keeping with the exceptional conservatism of Northern Ireland society, their landmark festivities also drew a few dozen Protestant evangelicals who sang gospel hymns and waved ''Sodomy is sin" placards.
Gay rights activists countered with their own bullhorn-assisted chants of support. A few wearing Hitler-style mustaches shadowed the evangelical crowd waving satirical placards that read, ''Earth is flat" and ''Bring back slavery."
Some lesbian couples who arrived as guests suffered verbal harassment from the protesters, who called them ''abominations" and warned of their impending damnation.
''The fact is that God instituted human marriage in the Garden of Eden, and it was one man with one woman. God has not changed that," said the Rev. Ian Brown of the Free Presbyterian Church of Ulster.
Brown, a protest leader, said most people in Northern Ireland opposed what he called ''sodomite propaganda" and homosexuals' ''perverse lifestyle."
Such views are more widely held in Northern Ireland than in other parts of the United Kingdom. In Belfast, Roman Catholics and Protestants sometimes overcome their political hostility to protest jointly on traditional family issues.
Northern Ireland's police force in May reported a surge in hate crimes against gays over the past two years.
As Close and Sickels arrived at Belfast City Hall, an informal poll on Radio Ulster in Belfast registered about 70 percent opposition to civil partnerships.
But the protesters were heading off for lunch and Christmas shopping by the time the second civil partnership couple, Christopher Flanagan and Henry Kane of Belfast, arrived in matching white morning suits and a pink stretch limousine.
Flanagan said the new law would protect them, ensuring that if one died, the other would inherit their property rather than relatives hostile to their relationship. ''It's given us legal status behind our relationship, if anything goes wrong," he said.
The third couple, two women, did not want their names and personal information published.