More than 1,000 gay and lesbian couples across the UK signed up for civil partnerships this week, with the introduction of the new law giving same-sex couples most of the same legal rights as married couples.

By the end of Monday, when the law came into force, at least 1,200 couples had registered. The highest number was recorded in Brighton, with around 500 couples, while London had more than 200.

The ceremonies are scheduled to begin in Northern Ireland on 19 December, in Scotland on 20, and in England and Wales on 21 December.

Same-sex couples will now be given the same social security, tax, inheritance and pension rights as married couples, plus some parental rights and access to fatal accident compensation. Couples are also free to change their surname if they wish.

But some see the most important benefits as being the social ones.

English-born David Watkins, who lives in Sydney, plans to return to the UK next year to marry his Australian boyfriend of seven months, Tas Vardarkas.

Watkins said the new law had changed not only the attitude of his family and friends on same-sex relationships, but also his own.

When the laws changed in Britain I developed a new attitude, Watkins said. Because it’s acceptable there, in a funny sort of way I feel more acceptable within myself.

It’s made me feel more okay to be who I am.

Watkins felt no one took him seriously when he said he would one day get hitched -“ not even his gay friends. But people’s attitudes change instantly when you tell them civil unions have become legal.

One of the first couples in England to have a civil partnership ceremony will be Roger Lockyer and Percy Stevens, who have been together for nearly 40 years. The couple from Westminster, in central London, will make their union official on 21 December at 8am.

It’s time, said Stevens. We pay our taxes and contribute to society and, until now, we have been excluded from qualifying for the same benefits as heterosexual couples. We’ve always felt as though we’ve been regarded as second class.

Roger and I have been together most of our lives, longer than many of our heterosexual couple friends. It is very satisfying to know that gay relationships are finally being legally recognised.

Also holding a ceremony on the 21st will be celebrity couple Elton John and David Furnish, who have been together for 12 years. The pair will tie the knot at the same Windsor venue where Prince Charles and Camilla Parker-Bowles got married in last April, with the same civil celebrant.

Singer George Michael also plans to wed his partner of nine years, Kenny Goss, in coming months.

Officials expect between 11,000 and 22,000 people to be in civil partnerships by 2010.

The British government have made it clear that civil partnerships are not marriage, with the legislation stipulating there can be no religious element to the ceremonies.

The new legal union is available only to same-sex couples. Like marriages, civil partnerships will only be formally dissolved through the courts.

Many overseas same-sex unions will be automatically recognised under the UK laws, including Canadian marriages, New Zealand civil unions and Tasmanian registered partnerships.

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