Austria and the Australian Capital Territory are both poised to begin offering same-sex civil unions—but in both cases, the most controversial aspect of the legislation was not the civil unions themselves, but whether they would include official commitment ceremonies. It seems that the growing international debate is largely over the symbolics of marriage, and whether a civil union that comes with a party becomes, in fact if not in name, a wedding.
In Austria this week the government has reached a compromise on legislation allowing civil partnerships for gay couples, though with considerable restrictions. Austria is governed by the liberal Social Democrats party, in coalition with the more conservative Austrian People's Party. The new law is the result of weeks of struggle between the two parties, and shows the strains of its birth. Gay couples who register for partnerships will be granted equal rights to straight couples in terms of taxes, pensions and alimonies, and they will be permitted to take each other's names. But there are substantial restrictions—gay couples will not be permitted to adopt, nor to use state health care for artificial insemination to conceive. Perhaps the most important move for the conservative opponents was ensuring that gay partners will not be permitted to hold ceremonies at registry offices.
The intent of the restriction on ceremonies is clearly intended to assuage the worries of figures such as the Viennese archbishop, Cardinal Schoenborn, who last week said the new law would "create conditions that will ultimately lead to registered partnerships and marriages being given an equal footing." If the gays have official ceremonies, he seems to be thinking, then no one will know they're not "really" married! Gay rights activists were unimpressed by such logic. "What the church has to finally accept," said Marco Schreuder, a Green city councillor in Vienna, to Die Presse newspaper, "is that the question of state recognition of all forms of relationship is a state and not a religious matter."
In the land down under, a similar new piece of gay rights legislation is imperiled by the same worry over ceremonies. That's because in one Australian territory, gays and lesbians are suddenly able to enter civil unions—complete with ceremonies! On November 11th, the Legislative Assembly of the Australian Capital Territory (ACT) voted to legalize same-sex ceremonies for same-sex civil unions. The ACT is an area in New South Wales, in southeastern Australia; it is the home to the country's capital, Canberra. It is self-governing, but not as completely so as the other Australian states (think of Washington D.C.'s degree of autonomy versus that of a U.S. state and you'll have the idea). For several years, the ACT's legislature has been in a struggle with the nation's federal government over gay rights. In 2006, the ACT legalized same-sex unions, only to have that decision overturned by the administration of then-Prime Minister Howard, before a single ceremony had been performed. In 2008, ACT legislators passed the bill again, but without offering the right to official ceremonies, fearing the threat of Prime Minister Rudd, who vowed to overturn any law that included ceremonies.
Now the ACT has passed legislation once again, on the heels of intense pressure and protests that included a national day of action in August drawing 10,000 protesters nationwide—Australia's largest gay-rights demonstration ever. As of Thursday, ceremonies are legal in the ACT. Whether Rudd will overturn the new law remains to be seen. But even if he does not, the bill has some serious limitations. Specifically, straight couples are precluded from entering civil partnerships, just as gay couples are prevented from getting married. In the fight over symbolism, we should not lose site of the more basic issues of equality for all.