Ben Duncan proposed to Dick Chapman in the summer of 1952 but he still remembers the occasion vividly. He'd chosen the perfect place, the perfect time of day: Oxford's Christ Church meadow at sunset. In the distance, punts floated by on the River Cherwell. 'What I had wanted all my life was to find one other person, and I knew I had found him,' he recalls. 'We went for a walk and sat on the benches under the walls of Merton College to look at the wonderful view. I thought to myself, this is the right moment to ask. After a suitably dramatic pause, I turned to him and suggested we spend the rest of our lives together.' Ben was over six foot tall, a romantic and impulsive American from Alabama, bewitched by England: 'It was the country of my dreams. I had built up a unrealistic idea of it based on literature but I had stepped into a dream, and Dick was part of that dream.' As for Dick, he was handsome and practical, the son of high-achieving Cambridge academics. 'There are moments in your life you remember absolutely, for ever after,' he says, taking up their story. 'And Ben's proposal was one of them. I thought it was wonderful but I also thought how could this possibly be? Ben had no rights to stay in England, no visible means of support, no family.'Furthermore, Ben was suggesting they live as a couple - two men in the kind of relationship that could land them in prison if discovered by the authorities; the kind that would remain illegal for another 15 years.
Over half a century later, at 9.30am on 21 December 2005 in a brightly lit office in Cambridge, Ben and Dick were one of the first couples in the country to register as civil partners. There was little fuss, no lavish reception or meandering speeches. At their request, no family members were present. Instead, a younger gay couple acted as their witnesses, and Ben and Dick were theirs. Afterwards, all four returned home for lunch and the chance to talk about what the day had meant to them all. 'I never imagined this moment would come,' says Ben, 78. 'I suppose during the early years of the gay movement the idea was floating around, and I thought "Wouldn't it be wonderful?", but I never really believed I would live to see it happen.' Dick, 75, agrees: 'I can still hardly believe it,' he says.
Judging by the media coverage the following day, one might have imagined the only ones to walk up the aisle on 'Pink Wednesday' were Elton John and David Furnish (not forgetting their black and white spaniel Arthur, nipping at their polished heels). However, almost 700 other same-sex couples across Britain also took advantage of the historic new legislation. Over the last month I've followed three of them: Ben and Dick, Mark and Shaun Johnson from Liverpool and Karen Carter and Joanne Ellerington, who live in Blackpool. On a purely practical level, all have spent their first Christmas together secure in the knowledge that they can now automatically inherit from each other without a will, benefit from their partner's national insurance contributions and pension, be exempt from inheritance tax and treated as a couple for immigration purposes. Nine other European countries already have similar legislation but for the first time in British history privileges which have been the right of any married couple - most poignantly, the right to register a loved one's death and to be automatically consulted about hospital treatment - are now enshrined in law for gay partners, too. In the event that any of them should decide to divorce, they won't be able to until 2007. As with any doomed marriage, they must give the relationship a go for at least a year and expect the same division of assets if it does go wrong.
But talking to these newly hitched couples, it's clear the legislation is as much to do with love and romance as any of the legal small print. 'Civil partnership' might be one of the least sentimental phrases ever concocted, and filling in a form might not readily inspire kisses, champagne toasts and embarrassing bouts of retro dancing, but the ceremonies that took place on 21 December were weddings by any other name. The day symbolised public recognition for hitherto private love stories. There were bonds nurtured despite periods of secrecy, mutually supportive relationships maintained the hard way, without much celebration or acceptance.
Until now.Despite their very different backgrounds, Ben and Dick have lived together for so long that when you speak to them on the phone it is impossible to tell their voices apart. Unconsciously they echo each other's choice of language. Neither is given to overstatement or melodrama. Ben is not exaggerating when he says: 'We have often asked each other what would have happened if we hadn't met? We now believe - no, we know - that neither of us would have survived without the other.'
When they met one icy New Year's Eve in 1951, the attraction was instant, physically and intellectually. Dick: 'We were both reading English, we both liked the same kind of literature, we both had the same leftish politics. We discovered only the other day that neither of us had any idea of where the college sports ground was!' Did he like the look of Ben, too? 'Oh, I thought he was marvellous!' he smiles.' You have to remember that Americans were rarer in Britain then. He seemed terribly glamorous and exotic.'
In 1962 Ben wrote an eloquent and poignant memoir, The Same Language
. It describes his childhood growing up in children's homes across America's deep south after the death of his parents, his flinty determination to make something of his life and his subsequent struggle with the Home Office to stay in Britain after winning a scholarship to Oxford. Last month an updated version was published in which Ben reveals what he could not in the Sixties for fear of serious reprisal: his homosexuality and his love for Dick. The two stories, in parallel, dramatically show how society has changed.
'It was an absolute joy to write,' says Ben. 'I can't tell you the sense of release. I wanted our lives put on record. I didn't want the moment to pass and be forgotten. I didn't want the bad things that happened to us happen to anyone else.'
He recalls a time characterised by ignorance and fear: when gay men constantly ran the risk of being arrested; when the police ransacked address books looking for incriminating names. If one of their circle was charged, everyone would club together to raise the money for a solicitor. Dick talks about a friend whose mother reacted with hostility when he told her he was homosexual. A few weeks later he committed suicide. Ben: 'It's very difficult for anybody of a younger generation to picture it - the sheer level of hostility. The view was that gay men should go to prison and never be let out again. 'Dick: 'There were no role models. 'Ben: 'There were men who were rumoured to be gay. But certainly at the beginning you would not know for sure.Dick: 'There was such a set way of life then - you got married, you had children. Now people might think, why didn't you protest and make a fuss? But you would have lost your job, your flat, your whole life would have collapsed. We were living in a totally hostile world.'
The Seventies began to bring freedoms they could never have imagined but then in the Eighties they were confronted with Aids. They estimate that they lost more than 40 friends. For the last 30 years they've been quietly active in the campaign for gay rights, setting up a branch of Crusaid in Cambridge and becoming father figures of the gay community in the area. 'I believe passionately in the idea of two against the world,' says Ben. 'Gosh, I do.'They are delighted whenever younger gay friends fall in love, just as they did over 50 years ago. Will legal recognition alter their relationship? 'I don't think it changes anything between Dick and me,' says Ben carefully. 'But I do think it changes the way we deal with the world and how the world deals with us.' By way of illustration he recounts how he opened the front door to a man delivering a celebratory bouquet of flowers on the afternoon of 21 December. 'He was gruff-looking, with an earring and so on. He asked if they were for somebody's birthday, and I wondered, "Am I going to tell him the truth?" When I explained, he looked genuinely delighted. "The world is a lot more open minded now," he said.'
There is something incredibly touching about these two dignified men, now in their retirement, talking about their love for one another. Ben, who has been dogged by ill health over the last few years, had been terrified that something would go wrong on their 'wedding day'. 'But it was wonderful. I have the sense of taking a deep breath and embarking on a different stage in our lives. This is the beginning of something new.'
(This is extracted from an article in The Observer
published on Sunday 1 January 2006. Ben and Dick are members of GALHA living in Cambridge. They are also members of Cambridge Humanist Group. You can find GALHA's response to the Civil Partnership legislation at:http://www.galha.org/submission/2003_09.html