Joy for same-sex marriage campaigners as final hurdle crossed for those in civil partnerships
FROM today, Cara McCann believes she will no longer be treated as "less than".
The leading gay rights campaigner will go with her partner, Amanda McGurk, to Belfast City Hall today and become one of the first same-sex couples in Northern Ireland to convert their civil partnership into marriage.
Landmark legislation comes into effect allowing the legal change, which many saw as the "final hurdle" for marriage equality in the LGBT community.
For Ms McCann, its marks the end of a battle that took her and other campaigners to Westminster, where she even sat in the Chief Whip's box to watch Labour MP Conor McGinn table an historic bill that led gay marriage becoming legal.
Speaking to The Irish News last night, the Belfast woman, said she and her partner of eight years "cannot wait" to receive their marriage certificate almost two years after becoming civil partners.
The couple have a 27-year-old son. There are more than 1,300 couples in civil partnerships in the north who can now convert to marital status.
"This is a really big day not just for us but for our family and friends. We will no longer be treated as 'less than'," said Ms McCann, who is also director of Here NI, a group which advocates for lesbian and bisexual women.
"We were never looking for special treatment but wanted to be seen as equal in the eyes of the law. There are over 1,000 people in civil partnerships who can choose to convert. For some, they may not wish to but it's about giving people that choice.
"There is a lot of excitement and comes after a very positive campaign run by the 'Love Equality' team. We had one foot in Stormont and one in Westminster.
"For us, it means so much more than marriage. Same-sex couples will be waking up on Monday a wee bit more equal and feeling more valued."
In England, Scotland and Wales, civil-partnered couples can convert their partnerships to marriage by filling in a form and paying a fee of £56.
However, couples in the north will have a three-year window during which they can convert to married status through an administrative process. Fees will be waived during the first year.
Ms McCann said they will not be donning wedding dresses however as they "went to town" on Valentine's Day last year for their partnership ceremony.
"We are coming up to our two-year anniversary and what is lovely is that our marriage certificate will be backdated to that date," she added.
"But for us, this campaign goes beyond marriage. Even though homophobia and discrimination still exists, I think there has been a cultural shift in Northern Ireland over the past five years due to conversations around the marriage debate."
Finance Minister Conor Murphy - his department is responsible for delivering the new laws - welcomed the legislation as "an important milestone for marriage equality".
"Seventeen couples are expected to convert their civil partnerships to marriages today with a total of 32 planned for this week. As a gesture of support I have waived the conversion fee for those couples and for all couples who wish to convert their civil partnership to a marriage for a full year," he said.
"I would like to congratulate those couples and wish them a very happy life together."
Same-sex marriage was legalised in Northern Ireland in January.