An Irish woman's social, political and domestic commentary
Monday, April 25, 2005  

This week's article from ST

You can’t have your wedding cake and eat it

They say lesbians never break up. I have to rely on what “they” tell me because I only know two lesbians. One of those isn’t even a proper lesbian because she changed her mind and moved in with a very nice chap.
By contrast I know lots of gay men, some single, some in long-term relationships. I suppose this proves women’s lack of interest in sex is such that they don’t feel obliged to declare which gender they’re not doing it with.

This lack of overt sexuality means your standard paranoid conservative voter doesn’t feel particularly threatened by two middle- class lesbians settling down together next door. Everyone can pretend they’re just sisters or spinster friends. This kind of thing went on in Victorian times relatively unquestioned.

Two men is another matter. An anxious electorate would prefer not to have to confront their own imaginations concerning the possibly perverted activities taking place between the gay couple up the street. So if you want to force the government to recognise same-sex marriages, it’s a good idea to present two respectable ladies as the test marriage rather than outcasts from the Village People.

Katherine Zappone and Ann Louise Gilligan, one such respectable couple, are currently trying to persuade the Irish state to recognise their Canadian marriage. They are clearly so harmless that even Bertie Ahern is open about his desire to give same-sex couples some form of official recognition.

Everyone agrees that same-sex couples face bureaucratic problems that can lead to financial loss as well as emotional distress. The principal loss arises when one of them dies. Since they are not next-of-kin the other partner has no rights over the disposal of the body. In some cases, the family can take the body and exclude the life-long partner from the funeral.

The Revenue Commissioners can make life even more difficult. Surviving partners have no inheritance rights and can lose a home through being forced to pay capital gains tax. Even before death, they lose out on marriage tax credits and may be denied visitation rights in hospital. No one likes to see nice people in this legal quagmire and the taoiseach’s amicable reaction offered some hope to the country’s 1,300 cohabiting same-sex couples.

Of course, what Bertie says and what Bertie allows to happen are different matters entirely. Last week the government decided to contest the legal action, for the same reason they contest all these hard luck cases; money. The Department of Finance has no interest in the social consequences of anything. They just don’t want to spend any money.

In this case, I agree with them. Same-sex couples wouldn’t be too expensive as they are so few of them. The problem is with others who’ve shacked up together. There are more than 77,000 cohabiting heterosexual couples, and allowing them to cash in on a decision recognising unmarried couples for tax purposes could cost €167m a year, according to the department.

I fully support the creation of a civil union which would give same-sex cohabitees most of the rights and protections available to married couples. In the absence of either a religious or state marriage ceremony for gay couples, they have no choice but to seek this recognition judicially.

On the other hand, heterosexual couples do have a choice: there is nothing to prevent them getting married to access all the benefits. The introduction of divorce means that even those in second relationships can now formalise their situation.

The argument centers on the definition of a marriage. To most reasonable people it is simply a religious, legal and domestic contract between two people. The religious element is the symbolic means by which the couple choose to make the contract public. To many, this is crucial; to others, irrelevant. For some, it’s the only way to get the presents. For others, their personal emotional commitment is the only symbolism they require.

The domestic bit is the way the couple organise their commitment on a daily basis, focusing on everything from the division of labour to the distribution of finance. This is up to the parties themselves and, if they don't get this right, they won’t last too long irrespective of how much the wedding cost.

That leaves the legal bit; putting the commitment down on paper. I understand why some couples want to avoid the circus a wedding day can become. However, those wishing to circumvent the fuss and arguments that go with your standard trip down the aisle can simply pop into a register office. It takes 15 minutes and they don’t even have to tell anyone what they are doing.

Many unmarried cohabiting couples claim they don’t see why the state has to become involved in their relationship. Choosing to be together rather than being legally required to do so is all part of the romance. Their relationship is their business and no one else’s. But if they want legal benefits and legal recognition then surely they have to have a legal contract in the first place? How is it consistent to reject the need for a contract and then claim its protection? If you must insist that you do not require legal recognition of your union, then how can you expect to get legal recognition? You’re either in or you’re out.

This is another of those situations where people get exercised about their rights but refuse to acknowledge their duties and responsibilities. Why would a loving life-long partner deny their other half pension rights, an entitlement to a share in the family home, tax credits and, in the case of fathers, guaranteed access to children? If they refuse to take the opportunity available to them to make a formal commitment, then they do not have the right to get outraged at the suggestion that their arrangement is of less standing than a marriage.

posted by Sarah | 14:58 1 comments
Of course in the USA, always pushing the frontiers of insanity, we had Tom DeLay saying, literally, that he didn't give a damn about Michael Schiavo's right as the recognised spouse of Terri to say what should happen to her when she couldn't say herself. So even a heterosexual marriage is only as a strong as the loons in charge. This was a case where, a cohabiting couple who had being forced by uncertainty to create a legally binding document (e.g. power of attorney) were in a stronger position than a traditional married couple who had simply assumed the rights would be there for the other person.
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