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Wednesday 14 April 2010


Proclamations of the Red Queen

28th November 2009

Book review: When Gay People Get Married

Posted by: Craig Young

Review: Mary V.L. Badgett: When Gay People Get Married: New York: New York University Press: 2009.badgett.jpg

University of Massachuesetts lesbian economist Mary Badgett is one of the stars of LGBT academia, providing indispensable quantitative data to LGBT legislative reform politics.

In this book, she deals with the question of LGBT relationship equality. At times, we may not fully appreciate how comparatively backward much of the United States is, compared to the rest of the western world. It has no comprehensive welfare state, no public health sector, and unmarried cohabitant rights are limited and primitive. When Badgett and her partner travelled to the Netherlands to research relationship equality, they were shocked to be treated like a committed, legally espoused couple!Why is it that some LGBT activists still regard same-sex marriage proper as the holy grail of relationship equality? For some, it has strong emotional and ceremonial resonances, leading to repressive consequences from the US (and Australian) Christian Rights over pre-emptive same-sex marriage bans.

In the Netherlands, though, the debate was about choice. I concur. I prefer New Zealand’s own fully enabled civil unions, but if other same-sex couples want same-sex marriage proper, I respect that choice- just as much as I would if a straight couple wanted access to civil partnerships instead, which has just happened in the United Kingdom.

What influences attitudes toward same-sex marriage/civil unions? Individual income, age, education, personal compatability, legal options and social context all lead to decisions to undertake the legal entitlements and responsibilities, ceremonial and ritual costs of same-sex marriage/civil unions. According to Badgett’s comparative cross-national research, the acquisition of rights and responsibilities and heterosexual cohabitation levels have no effect on uptake, while discriminatory marriage entitlements and religious attitudes are significant variables.

What leads some people to entertain perceptions of civil unions as somehow ‘inferior’ to same-sex marriage proper? Outside New Zealand, France and Germany provide far more limited spousal rights and responsibilities to their equivalent registered partnerships than is the case here. In Scandinavia, the United Kingdom and New Zealand, the opposite is true. The absence of ceremonial recognition and different service wording may be more subjective factors.

Predictably, our spousal rights have no effect on heterosexual attitudes toward marriage and cohabitation. Scandinavian marriage rates actually went up after the advent of registered partnerships and the rise of unmarried cohabitation and nonmarital births has to be attributed more to womens reproductive freedom, waged female labour, secularisation, welfare benefit entitlements and cohabitants spousal rights than legal recognition of LGBT spousal relationships.

Getting hitched confers citizenship rights and responsibilities, social inclusion and proof of fidelity and commitment to a specific partner, yet some LGBT advocates are sceptical about marriage itself as a heterosexist, misogynist and hierarchical institution that disenfranchises alternative forms of relationship recognition.

How might our own future acquisition of same-sex marriage proceed? The Netherlands provides a useful comparison. Like New Zealand, its registered partnerships were more or less fully enabled when the Dutch Parliament legislated for them in 1998, and it only took three years for the remaining entitlements to be added and movement toward full same-sex marriage proper to be instituted in 2001. This suggests that civil unions should be seen as essential interim steps to the latter. In Denmark, religious institutions can preside over registered partnerships. In Sweden, same sex parenting rights and responsibilities arrived in 2003.  Even in the United States, California and New Jersey have taken corresponding steps.

Badgett concludes that incrementalism seems to be the best policy insofar as acquisition of LGBT spousal and parenting rights and responsibilities go. Indeed, with the abolition of provocation defence this week, New Zealand now only has to undertake adoption reform to attain full substantive LGBT equality. Centre-left party governments, increased secularisation and law commission reports usually facilitate the prospects of eventual reform. Snap.

That is, except in Australia. The Australian Senate has just refused to do anything about the federal government’s discriminatory legislation against same-sex marriage in that country. Fundamentalist South Australian Senator Brian Fielding described homosexuality as akin to ‘incest.’  Understandably, this infuriated Senator Brian Brown of the Australian Greens, himself an openly gay man. Against that, however, the Rudd administration has finally realised that civil unions are a matter of legislative equality, and won’t touch those currently passed into law within the Australian Capital Territory. Badgett would argue that this is probably a useful interim step into dispensing with the benighted federal legislation in question, and I would agree.

This is a magnificent addition to the existing literature on LGBT spousal and relationship equality.

Tags: Politics

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