Academic journal article Journal of Comparative Family Studies

Second-Class Marriage? Civil Union in New Zealand

Academic journal article Journal of Comparative Family Studies

Second-Class Marriage? Civil Union in New Zealand

Article excerpt


The legalization of same-sex relationships and the rise in non-marital cohabitation have considerable debate about relationship rights, the rise of individualism, the meaning of marriage, and the decline of 'the traditional family' (Beck-Gernsheim, 2002; Cherlin, 2004; Coontz, 2005; Lewis, 2001). In Western countries, more couples now share a home without legal relationship recognition because they either believe that marriage offers little personal benefit or they oppose it as an exclusive, gendered or heterosexist institution (Elizabeth, 2000). Some gays and lesbians fought assiduously for legal relationship rights, while others expressed ambivalence once the new laws were enacted or decided against legalizing their own relationship (McNair et al., 2002; Rolfe and Peel, 20 11; Weeks, 2002).

The legalization of same-sex relationships in New Zealand became a political issue in the 1990s when three lesbian couples applied to the courts for the right to marry under existing legislation. Although they failed to win the right to marry, they succeeded in putting samesex marriage rights on the political agenda. This issue was taken up when a Labour-led government came to power in 1999, first through enhanced property rights for all couples (irrespective of marital status or sexual orientation) and then through the promotion of civil union legislation. The Property (Relationships) Bill was hugely controversial, with many religious and conservative leaders decrying it as a threat to the status of heterosexual marriage. The level of opposition this Bill prompted a compromise and politically achievable solution to the quest for same-sex marriages: civil unions (Elizabeth, 2001).

Despite ongoing opposition from certain religious and political groups, and some criticism from within the gay and lesbian community, the Civil Union Act was passed in December 2004 by the Labour-led government. This Act enabled same-sex and opposite-sex couples to register their unions with the state as of April 2005, to acquire partnership rights, to be viewed as 'next of kin', and to be considered legal partners for purposes of income tax, support obligations and social benefits (Statistics NZ, 2010, p. 3). However, civil union cannot legally adopt and marriage remains the preserve of heterosexual couples. Furthermore, the legal rights acquired through this Act do not necessarily apply if same-sex couples live in countries opposing their unions (Baker, 20 10: 62).

Creating a separate legal institution for same-sex couples has been a controversial aspect of civil union/ civil partnership legislation because it could be seen as portraying them as different from heterosexuals or even as second-class citizens (Elizabeth, 2001; Jowett and Peel, 2010). This paper reflects on the social construction of two forms of 'marriage' by investigating whether celebrants and cohabitants who have decided to legalize view these forms as the same or different. The paper draws on official statistics from New Zealand but focuses on our own qualitative interviews with marriage and civil union celebrants, and long-term cohabitants who plan to legalize their relationships or have already done so.


Cohabitation is becoming indistinguishable from marriage because it is so prevalent, especially among the younger generation, but also because governments and agencies increasingly disregard marital status and sexual orientation in their treatment of couples and families (Heuveline and Timberlake, 2004). Rising cohabitation rates suggest that straight and gay/lesbian couples are constructing their own 'biographies of love' (Beck and BeckGersheim, 1995). Despite this, many researchers argue that marriage remains a culturally desirable ideal, a 'meaning-constitutive tradition', a 'symbolic act of commitment', and increasingly a marker of prestige (Cherlin, 2004; Coast, 2009; Elizabeth, 2001; Edin and Kefalas, 2005; Gross 2005; Haskey, 1999; Jamieson et al. …

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