co habit

A couple of nights back, a friend came over for a huge plate of pasta and the remains of our vanilla ice-cream. We got talking about civil partnerships, a subject I’ve become rather hooked on of late. For a long time now, I’ve been uneasy with my married arrangements specifically after a long conversation with a friend, a lesbian, who argued sincerely and passionately that civil partnerships discriminate against homosexuals. She convinced me that as a sexual being of the hetero variety, I should jump on the civil partnership bandwagon and force equality into the deal. Hence discussions on divorce. Some (straight) people I know think this is simply provocative, non-sensical or time-wasting. They believe that the difference between civil partnerships and hetero marriages is nothing more than the title of the agreement, the words. They don’t agree with Tom and Kate that to have a conventional marriage is to be ‘colluding with the segregation that exists in matrimonial law’. Peter Tatchell has argued that the fact there is one law for straight couples and another for gay couples amounts to an apartheid, and asks us to consider how we would respond if there was a law for white couples marrying and another for black couples. Like Tom and Kate, I believe that conventional marriage – even marriages that are not held in a church like mine (was not) – I have colluded in an inequality in our so-called democracy that is based on, er hum, equal rights.

But I’m not going to bang on about that further because Tatchell, Tom & Kate have done that very well already.

When I raised this issue the other night with my friend, his response raised further interesting questions. He – or was it Mr J? – suggested that the debate about civil partnerships and marriage, while important, is an example of the way our society prioritises coupledom over other forms of friendship, love and life long fellowship. He pointed out that while it is ok to live in a shared rented house with other people when you are, say, a student, it becomes less and less acceptable to do that once you hit your 30s or, God forbid!, your 40s. By then, you should have a mortgage and be living either alone or with your wonderful, life-long (ha ha haa) other. Then there should be kids. But you don’t go ‘communal’ or ‘Kibbutzal’ once you reach your mid-30s. By then, any desire to live ‘differently’ is probably immature or provocative. Those among us who don’t seek to prove that lifelong love is possible – let alone desirable – and who would like to live with people who mean a great deal to them, but are not necessarily lovers, are left out in many ways. Or, they are catered for until their late 20s and then they are abandoned and tossed onto the fire. You simply don’t live like that.

Yesterday, I came across this piece, also written by Tatchell. In it, he proposed the Civil Commitment Pact which: would allow people to nominate as their next-of-kin and beneficiary any ‘significant other’ in their life. It could be a lover, but it could also be a sister, carer, housemate or life-long best friend.

He adds: Many non-sexual friendships are as sincere, loyal and enriching as relations between people in love. They, too, should have legal recognition. Restricting partnership rights to people in sexual relationships discriminates against close friends who support each other, but who are not in a traditional love coupling. If an elderly brother and sister set up house together and care for one another, why shouldn’t they have legal rights?

Indeed.

And lo and behold, as I lay in bed last night reading the final few pages of One Dimensional Woman, I come across this: Whatever did happen to those dreams of living differently? To the radical Kibbutzim, co-housing groups, revolutionary cells? When the ‘queer’ comes to stand in for the right for everyone to own their own fuck-pad, and the family turns ever inward upon itself (‘now we’ve finally managed to save up for a mortgage, how about we schedule in a child around 2010?’), when gay lifestyle magazines fill their pages with advice on how best to marry and adopt you knw the restoration is truly upon us. Alternative living these days is more likely to refer to the fact that you’ve bolted a solar panel to your roof rather than undertaken any practical critique of the nuclear family.

As IT points out: … we move… from the many (a generalized sexual hedonia) to the one (the ‘life partner’ who agrees to share the mortgage) but with nothing in between, apart, perhaps, for some, a fleeting glimpse of possible alternatives. But the shared student house, or squatting wtih an anarchist group or pottering off for a few years to an ashram in one’s early twenties are scarcely more than temporary diversions, slotted in to an already pre-ordained telos of domestic and economic stability. They lack structure – and deliberately so.

One lot of people Nina doesn’t talk about are nuns and priests who, in my experience, do live pretty revolutionarily in same-sex non-sex (in principle anyway) households where labour is shared (well, ok, labour is sometimes parcelled down to a youngster or a woman, I admit) and life is shared almost completely. Nina talks a lot more about sex and a man called Otto Muhl who sounds like he had a great time in 1970s Germany shagging for, well, Germany. But it sounds like Otto, in his own way, did seek to go beyond what Nina calls the ‘current many-then-one model’ even if it did land him in the slammer eventually. But what about nuns and priests Nina? or anyone? They do a fine job of living in small groups together.

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