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Dayna Berghan: I'd Rather Have The Choice

There has been a bit of buzz recently in New Zealand about the creation of a Civil Union. So what is a Civil Union you may ask?

Civil Union 101: In New Zealand, the law recognises three types of relationships; marriage, heterosexual de facto relationships and homosexual de facto relationships. De facto relationships are those that are closest in nature to marriage. Different types of relationships have very different levels of recognition and access to statutory entitlements under the law. Married couples have over 100 entitlements, heterosexual de facto couples have about 30 and same-sex couples have just 9.

What the proposed Civil Unions Bill (CUB) sets out to do is create a system of registration and dissolution of civil unions between adult partners of relationships "in the nature of marriage", for same-sex couples and different-sex couples. This has vast implications for the Queer community in New Zealand. In New Zealand, same sex couples cannot legally get married or access the rights that come with marriage. Generally, New Zealand laws do not recognise the existence of same-sex couples. Same-sex partners are not "next of kin" or 'family" according to most of our laws.

Currently the CUB is in its pre-draft stage. The committee set up to work on the bill has conducted a survey to ascertain what people, especially queer people, think of the CUB. . The respondents overwhelmingly supported the proposal with only 6% of the respondents stating that they did not generally support the CUB. The report can be viewed online at www.civilunions.org.nz

Personally, I support the CUB. Growing up as the child of a de facto relationship and my standpoint as a feminist and as a bisexual woman lead me to reject marriage. I see marriage as an outdated model of patriarchal control. Everything about it bugs me - the ceremony (father 'giving away' the daughter), the vows ('obedience' to each other) the expectations that come after marriage ('so when is the baby due?') and the recognition by the state of this institution (Mr. and Mrs. 'his last name') as well as the state denying the right of same-sex couples to get married. However in saying that, I am not about to stop anybody from marrying if that is what they want, and I'm not so unromantic that I don't want something to mark my union with someone of my choosing (perhaps a big party rather than a wedding).

The CUB is not set up to stop people lobbying for same-sex marriage at all. It is there to provide rights for those who do not wish to marry. On the website the proposal for the CUB stated that it wanted to "establish two tiers of state recognition of adult partnerships; marriage and civil union." That did not infer that same-sex marriage would not have equal status to that of heterosexual marriage but that the CUB would provide a marriage alternative. If people were to reject the notion of a CUB because they wanted same-sex marriage that would bode ill for those who don't want to get married. There would be no argument left for anything but same-sex marriage, and as demonstrated by the survey report many people support the notion of some other than union rather than that of marriage.

However, in flagging my support for the CUB there is a lot of things about the state's assumptions about unions that need to be addressed. The assumption of resource dependence; the assumption that since you are living together and are in a union that all resources (time, money, assets and childcare) are shared equally within the union. While there are two partners to a legislated union there are those who have more than one spouse. While these are not factors that are directly related to the CUB they make up New Zealand's relationship laws which the CUB if passed will become apart of.

There's still a long way to go for the CUB. Whilst the intent of the CUB is to grant same-sex couples the right to union and act as a precursor for same-sex marriage, it is important that the CUB not amplify the institutionalised inequalities that exist. However if the bill doesn't pass then same-sex couples are left with the same 9 entitlements and nothing is done. But should you settle for something unsatisfactory? I don't have all the answers. But looking at the big picture, and it really is early days yet, I think the CUB is something worth considering for same-sex couples and de facto couples as an alternative to marriage. I'd rather have the choice than nothing at all.

N.B The Civil Union Committee is open to questions, comments and feedback. Contact them at P.O. Box 12-624, Wellington, 6002, New Zealand. Or email them civilunions@lycos.com or see their website www.civilunions.org.nz

The views in this opinion piece on the Civil Unions Bill are not necessarily the views held by NZUSA or the Tertiary Women's Focus Group, neither of which have policy in this area. Nor can I claim to represent all the diverse views on this subject that are held by the members of the aforementioned groups

Dayna Berghan
National Women's Rights Officer
New Zealand University Students' Association
http://groups.yahoo.com/group/tertiary_womens_focus_group
http://groups.yahoo.com/group/UniQnz


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