The formal recognition of same-sex relationships, through relationship registries, civil unions and equal marriage, offers immense practical and symbolic benefits for same-sex couples.
Legal academics like Jenni Millbank may play down these benefits but they make a compelling case for reform at both a state and national level.
Formal recognition of a relationship gives the partners concerned immediate access to spousal rights in a wide range of areas.
At a state level these include superannuation, taxation, insurance, health care, hospital visitation, employment conditions like carers, parenting and bereavement leave, wills, property division and child custody.
Sure these rights are already available to gay and straight de facto couples in most states, including NSW, but they are not automatically available as they are for couples who have the right to register themselves or marry. De facto couples must meet certain eligibility criteria before they are legally considered a couple, including a cohabitation period which in some states is as long as three years.
Formal recognition of relationships also allows couples to prove their relationship if challenged. This can be particularly important in emergency situations like accidental injury or the sudden onset of a debilitating disease where one partner must quickly put beyond doubt their right to make medical decisions affecting the other.
Many of the couples I know who have registered their relationships in Tasmania say having their relationship officially recognised gives them a sense of security. By this they mean that, in the event of tragedy in their lives, they know their wishes will be respected.
The Tasmanian partnership registry, dismissed by Jenni Millbank as limited, is in fact broader in scope than any of its equivalents overseas, and has been hailed by other legal academics as the best in the world.
Another tangible benefit of formal relationship recognition is having your relationship automatically acknowledged when visiting those places that have similar laws. For example, same-sex couples registered in Tasmania instantly receive the same rights as their British equivalents when they walk through UK customs, without the need to waste time and money on a British civil union.
For couples where one partner is an EU citizen this means far fewer hassles applying for tourist, work and residency visas for the other partner. For tourists it can mean lower travel and health insurance costs and general peace of mind when travelling.
At the level of symbolism, the formal recognition of same-sex relationships is about much more than what Millbank calls the fun part of having a ceremony. It is about government and society validating and affirming the love and commitment between same-sex partners, and the value of same-sex relationships in general.
Same-sex couples have been persecuted and discriminated against for centuries. There is no faster-acting antidote to this poison than the community’s official stamp of approval for who, and how deeply, LGBT people love.
Jenni Millbank is right that civil unions are no substitute for equal marriage, that the formal recognition of same-sex relationships is no substitute for de facto laws, and that unions solemnised in the ACT will not be recognised in NSW.
But none of these points amounts to an argument against reform. In the Netherlands, Belgium, Nova Scotia and Qu?c they have equal marriage and partnership registries. The role of the latter is to allow couples not wishing to marry to nonetheless obtain evidence of their relationship status.
As the Tasmanian relationship registry shows, partnership registries can also serve the purpose of enfranchising a wide range of non-conjugal relationships like those between older companions and carers and the people they care for. This is important for LGBT people because the most important person in our lives may not always be the person we live with or have sex with.
The Tasmanian scheme also shows how the recognition of de facto couples can live happily alongside more formal recognition of relationships.
De facto laws are important to protect couples who do not register or marry. But there is nothing about allowing registration or marriage which threatens or undermines existing de facto protections. In fact the enactment of a partnership registry mainstreams de facto laws and confirms their importance.
As for the failure of the NSW and federal governments to recognise civil unions solemnised in Canberra, as far as I can see this is an argument for them to reform too. Sure these governments might be reluctant now, but you’ll be surprised how quickly that will change when hundreds of unionised couples rally demanding legal recognition. And if MPs know what’s good for them they’ll make that recognition retrospective to when the civil union occurred in the ACT.
Formal relationship recognition is, after all, a way for society to salute the victory of love and commitment over all those forces that threaten to overwhelm them.
By one day tipping their hats to those pioneering Sydneysiders who married in Canberra without any guarantee that it would ever mean anything anywhere else, the parliaments and people of NSW and the nation will be doing just that.
Rodney Croome is a spokesperson for the Tasmanian Gay and Lesbian Rights Group.