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First English Unions Set for ‘Gay Capital’

December 20, 2005

BRIGHTON, England (AP) _ This hilly seaside city is famous for its chic bohemian lifestyle, vibrant cultural and culinary scenes, boisterous student life _ and the nation’s largest gay community.

If America has San Francisco, Britain has Brighton _ and attention will be on the freewheeling resort when England’s first gay civil unions take place Wednesday.

``There is a great diversity of culture here,″ said Trevor Love, a City Hall registrar who has helped many of the hundreds of gay and lesbian couples register for civil unions in England and Wales. The ceremonies kicked off Monday in Northern Ireland.

``Everybody gets on with everybody,″ said Love. ``That’s why the gay population chose this area. People lead their own lives without interference or recrimination.″

City Hall has done its best to make the ceremonies seem like weddings.

The 19th century building’s grand staircase is being decorated with flowers, cherubs and ivy, and the Brighton Gay Men’s Choir will perform. The city is also selling confetti and small plastic containers shaped like champagne bottles for well-wishers to blow bubbles at the celebrants.

The 15 ceremonies Wednesday will take place in a ground-floor room of City Hall beneath four chandeliers. A video camera mounted on a wall will allow people to watch them on giant screens in the nearby Hilton Metropole hotel.

Like its American cousin, Brighton is a bastion of tolerance and progressive politics.

In the 2005 general election, the Green Party took 22 percent of the vote in the Brighton Pavilion constituency, compared to 1 percent nationally. Nearby Sussex University’s electricity needs are met entirely by renewable energy sources, including wind power.

Brighton’s beach has a nudist area. And every August the Brighton Pavilion _ a former summer retreat for the royal family _ is covered in pink lights for the gay pride festival.

The city’s gay and lesbian scene is located in Kemptown, nicknamed ``Camptown.″ It includes leather workshops, pink parlors and kickboxing clubs.

At a booming dance club, Anika Khan, 25, said she plans to wed her partner Sharon.

``I want a hot pink dress, a cream suit for Sharon, and a limousine. I want a big reception in the Grand Hotel, with drag queens and karaoke, because I am a lady,″ Khan said.

Wednesday’s opening ceremony will include three couples, including the Rev. Debbie Gaston and Elaine Gaston, her partner of 16 years, and Gino Mariano, who runs a company called Pink Weddings, and his partner Mike Ullett.

Brighton has not always enjoyed a trendy, affluent image. In the first half of the 20th century, it crawled with small-time mobsters in perpetual turf wars _ an underworld Graham Greene depicted in his novel ``Brighton Rock.″

Since then, Brighton has transformed itself twice _ first as a seaside resort for the masses and more recently as a hip satellite town of London where wealthy city workers can enjoy a laid-back lifestyle in exchange for an hourlong commute.

For Britons, the Brighton Pavilion is as famous a landmark as the Golden Gate Bridge is to Americans.

In 1786, the young prince regent, later King George IV, transformed a farm house into a neoclassical villa that included a marine pavilion, a huge royal stable and sumptuous state rooms.

The choice of Brighton as the royal family’s summer retreat turned the city into a magnet for high society, complete with royal hangers on, actors, actresses, gamblers and ladies of the night.

But in 1850 Queen Victoria abandoned the pavilion because she believed it was attracting too many tourists. She sold it to the city, taking all its furniture to a new summer home on the Isle of Wight.

That led to a decline that has only been reversed in recent decades _ largely through the blossoming of the gay community.

For much of the 1900s, Brighton was a rough-and-tumble, blue-collar town. The city gained notoriety as a seedy place where husbands could fake adulterous liaisons to speed their divorce proceedings.

Despite its re-gentrification, Brighton has not entirely lost that shady image.

``It’s the city you could always come to and no one would ask questions, a very naughty city,″ said Geoffrey Mead, a local historian. ``Many Britons still know the lyrics from a famous song that begins, ’Who’s the girl I saw you with at Brighton?‴

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