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Sister Act | The Nation

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The Notion

Unfiltered takes on politics, ideas and culture from Nation editors and contributors.

Sister Act

Yesterday I posted about one of the more disturbing fallouts from the push for gay marriage -- right-wing attempts to use state DOMAs to strike down domestic violence protections for unmarried people. Well today I have a far more rousing incident to report. Two elderly sisters in Britain are suing the UK in the European Court of Human Rights for the right to get gay married!

Well, not exactly. But in one of the more felicitous and surprising developments to result from same-sex union drives, Joyce (88) and Sybil Burden (80), of Ogbourne St. George, are demanding that the UK extend to cohabitating, dependent family members the same rights that same-sex couples enjoy under Britain's Civil Partnership Act. That act, passed in 2004, extends almost all the rights of marriage to unrelated, same-sex partners, including the right to avoid inheritance taxes in the event of the death of one partner. That last bit is key since if their lawsuit (and one of the sisters' health) fails, the survivor will be forced to sell the house they designed, built and lived in together for 41 years, leaving her homeless.

Under the Civil Partnership Act, you don't need to be queer, conjugal or even cohabitating to register as civil partners; you just need to be unrelated, unmarried, of the same-sex, and sign an affidavit in front of a registrar and two witnesses. Joyce and Sybil Burden don't qualify merely because they are related.

If under British law, Katha gets a share of her new husband's UK pension (congratulations Katha!), it seems most unfair that these two dames are essentially treated as if they were strangers. As Sybil Burden said to the Times, "We are looked down upon for being single. We just want to be treated as equal citizens and given the rights we deserve. We've saved the Government thousands by caring for our elderly sick relatives till they passed away and have never claimed a penny apart from the pension." Jolly good, ladies!

The Beyond Marriage statement I helped draft calls for exactly the sort of household recognitions that would aid the Burdens and other elderly, unmarried people. Alas, Britain's version of same-sex union is far more progressive than anything available in the US; it doesn't require conjugality and explicitly forbids religious participation. This latest twist only accentuates the yawning gap between Europe and the US on these matters since in this country we're beating back attempts -- from right-wingers and gay marriage advocates -- to heighten the difference between married and unmarried people.

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