Mon Dec 5, 2005 11:12 AM GMT
By Paul Majendie
LONDON (Reuters) - After years of campaigning for equal rights in Britain, gay couples applied on Monday to give their partnerships legal status for the first time.
"This is a highly symbolic and very special day," said Alan Wardle of the gay pressure group Stonewall.
"It sends out a signal to society that lesbian and gay relationships are recognised, valued and treated with respect," he said as hundreds of couples signed up.
A new law allowing same-sex civil partnerships will give homosexual couples the same property and inheritance rights as married heterosexual couples and entitles them to the same pension, immigration and tax benefits.
After a two-week waiting period couples will be able to legally register their partnerships for the first time.
Equality Minister Meg Munn said: "This is an important piece of legislation that gives legal recognition to relationships that were invisible in the eyes of the law."
Munn, who said the government expected up to 4,500 couples to sign up in the first year, told the BBC: "It is just as serious a commitment to make as marriage."
Unlike those in Belgium, the Netherlands, Spain and Canada, Britain's civil partnership is not a marriage.
Civil partnership is formed when a couple sign certain documents in an exclusively civil procedure, whereas a marriage becomes binding when partners exchange spoken words in a civil or religious ceremony.
ELTON JOHN CEREMONY
Among the first couples planning to "tie the knot" are pop star Elton John and his partner David Furnish in a ceremony on December 21, the earliest possible date to do so in England.
"We're very lucky to live in Britain. I cannot think of a more tolerant place to live," John said.
But the flamboyant star renowned for splashing out on lavish parties told the gay magazine Attitude that their ceremony will be "very private, a small family affair, David's parents, my parents and the two of us. They'll be our witnesses."
And they will not be selling the wedding photos to any celebrity magazine. "Madonna got it right when she was married. Nobody has seen one photograph of that day," he said.
Pop star George Michael has also said he plans to get hitched with Kenny Goss, his lover for the last nine years, in a private ceremony.
"I'm sure Kenny and I will be doing the old legal thing but we won't be doing the whole veil and gown thing," he said at the London premiere of a documentary about his pop career.
The Church of England has provoked fury among Anglican traditionalists by allowing gay priests to register under the new civil partnership law as long as they remain celibate.
It provoked the ire of the Roman Catholic Bishop of Cardiff Peter Smith who said: "What the government should do in terms of public policy is support marriage rather than undermine it."
The Times, long renowned as the revered mouthpiece of the British Establishment, broke new ground when three gay couples placed civil partnership announcements in its Births, Deaths and Marriages column.
"When I was a young man being gay was illegal so an awful lot has changed in our life times," said Graham Ferguson, 67, who has lived for 34 years with Christopher Heyd-Smith, 59.
"We feel it is a privilege to be able to have our partnership legally recognised," he told the paper.