Academic journal article Women's Studies Quarterly

Sexual Citizenship and the Pursuit of Relationship-Recognition Policies in Australia and the United States

Academic journal article Women's Studies Quarterly

Sexual Citizenship and the Pursuit of Relationship-Recognition Policies in Australia and the United States

Article excerpt

Achieving the right to marry has arguably been the one of the most important agenda items for the U.S. lesbian and gay movement for more than a decade (Bernstein 2002; Eskridge 1996). In contrast, achieving samesex marriage has not been central to the political agenda of lesbian and gay activists in Australia until very recently. Instead, activists have pursued entrance into "de facto" relationships that are in some ways similar to common-law marriages in the United States. However, de facto relationships do not carry all the rights, responsibilities, and obligations of marriage, nor do they necessarily affect parental rights in the case of same-sex couples. Although initially heralded as a great victory in the United States, civil unions, originally developed in Vermont as an alternative to marriage, are now viewed by most activists as a second-class form of relationship recognition. Until recently, major advances in relationship recognition, including same-sex marriage (Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Iowa) as well as comprehensive (Vermont, California, New Jersey, and Washington) or limited (Hawaii) domestic partnerships or civil unions in the United States were achieved through the courts, under threat of a court decision, or were passed as compromise measures in response to the enactment of state-level defense of marriage acts (DOMAs) that denied marriage rights to same-sex couples.1 In stark contrast, Australian activists have almost entirely eschewed the courts in their pursuit of official recognition of their relationships. Given that Australia and the United States are both considered liberal welfare states (Esping-Andersen 1990) with similar approaches to the development of public policy, what accounts for the differences between the two countries in the strategies they have developed to achieve relationship recognition? What explains why activists in the United States and Australia have pursued different paths toward attaining relationship recognition? Why, in contrast to those in the United States, have Australian activists pursued recognition of de facto relationships as well as other types of nonmarital relationships? Why isn't marriage the major marker of citizenship in Australia as it is in the United States? In short, what explains the different choice of goals for Australian lesbian and gay activists?

In this article, we draw on the multi-institutional politics model (Armstrong and Bernstein 2008), feminist theories of the state (e.g., Orloff 1993), and studies of sexual citizenship (e.g., Evans 1993) to explain differences between the United States and Australia in how activists conceptualize the importance of marriage as a marker of citizenship. We argue that four factors account for these differences: structural differences in legal systems between the two nations, differences in welfare regimes and policy frameworks - namely, the relative importance and history of de facto relationships and marriage in the two countries - and cultural norms about marriage. In addition, we argue that shifts in the trajectory of and value attached to achieving different types of relationship recognition is the result of interactions with opposing movements and of the international diffusion of marriage-related conceptions of citizenship. We draw primarily on interview data, analysis of policy debates, documents produced by activist organizations, and historical data to answer these questions and focus briefly on differences between South Australia, Tasmania, and Vermont to illustrate our argument.

Sexual Citizenship, Feminist Theories of the State, and Multi-institutional Politics

Recent scholarship views citizenship as more than a collection of social and political rights and obligations. Instead, citizenship entails the ways in which individuals achieve legitimate status as full members of communities. "Citizenship describes a specific type of social bond between members of a community that is symbolic of material connections of culture, tradition, and geography" (Jones 1994, 256). …

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