Page last updated at 15:47 GMT, Monday, 17 May 2010 16:47 UK

Austrians seek right to partnership created for gays

By Phil Cain

A heterosexual Austrian couple have embarked on a court battle to have their relationship legally recognised as a "registered partnership" - a new form of civil union for same-sex couples.

Frederic Morel and Delphine Rorive
Half-married: Frederic Morel and Delphine Rorive in half a wedding outfit

Helga Ratzenboeck and Martin Seydl say they don't want a traditional marriage and insist that the law should be blind to gender and sexuality.

Meanwhile, the kind of pared-down marriage they want is proving a huge hit with straight couples in France, where 95% of couples taking up the pacte civil de solidarite (Pacs) in 2009 were heterosexual.

As the number of straight French couples opting for Pacs has grown, the number of marriages has shrunk, to the point that there are now two couples entering into a Pacs for every three getting married.

'A little bit equal'

In both Austria and France, some gay couples are fighting for the right to full marriage. Belgium, the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden and Norway are currently the only European countries allowing same-sex marriages.

Should we want to get divorced it would be easier, which is good, because marriage is heavily criticised for being too strict
Joerg Epper Kaiser

But legal battles for the right to registered partnership, like Ms Ratzenboeck and Mr Seydl's, are rarer.

"The couple involved already have grown up children and are not interested in adopting," says their lawyer, Helmut Graupner.

"They are more interested in a more loose, modern form of partnership with a shorter time period for divorce and lower maintenance obligations afterwards."

Mr Graupner is also representing two Austrian same-sex couples, one gay and other lesbian, wanting a traditional marriage.

He has an argument that applies to both sets of clients: "You can't be a little bit equal, in the same way as you can't be a little bit dead or a little bit pregnant. You can only be equal or unequal."

The Constitutional Court turned down the idea of marriage for gay couples in 2003, on the grounds that the purpose of marriage was reproduction.

But Mr Graupner, who points out that infertile people are allowed to marry, thinks there is now a chance the court will change its mind.

"There are some younger judges and younger judges are normally more open on this question," he says.

Sexual fidelity

Austria is the eighth EU country to have introduced partnerships for same-sex couples. They are very similar, but not the same as marriage. The others are Britain, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Hungary and Slovenia.

Introduced in Austria on 1 January 2010
270 partnerships concluded by end of April
185 (69%) involving men, 85 (31%) involving women
Source: Interior Ministry

Austria's "registered partnerships" do not bring adoption rights or access to fertility treatment, but despite more than 70 differences, gay and lesbian groups tended to see their introduction on 1 January as significant progress for a conservative, Catholic country.

Some, like Kurt Krickler of Viennese gay rights group HOSI, were pleasantly surprised at how far the partnerships went. Particularly surprising, he says, is that that it offers non-Austrian partners a right to work in Austria, where fears about immigration run very high.

Supporters cite a number of reasons why registered partnerships are better than marriages. Dissolving a marriage can take up to six years, while for registered partnerships it takes three at most. The law also puts more emphasis on openness and honesty than on strict sexual fidelity.

We just wanted to pay less taxes
Delphine Rorive

"Should we want to get divorced it would be easier, which is good, because marriage is heavily criticised for being too strict," says Joerg Eipper Kaiser, a 34-year-old museum worker in Austria's second city of Graz. Joerg, who was one of the first people to enter into a registered partnership, says his only complaint is that he is not allowed, under the law, to hyphenate his last two names.

Fancy dress

France's Pacs has some similarities. There are tax advantages and, for many straight couples, it seems like a low-risk stepping stone to marriage.

Graph showing rise of civil partnership in France

Delphine Rorive a 31-year-old management consultant "Pacsed" her boyfriend Frederic Morel, 29, in July last year.

"We just wanted to pay less taxes," she says.

"To us, it was only an administrative process. We had an appointment at the court at 0800 one morning, just the two of us, and 15 minutes later we were outside, Pacsed and ready to go to work, which we did.

"Soon after we decided to organise a fancy-dress party to celebrate. We invited all of our friends but no family, otherwise it would have been too much like a wedding.

"My boyfriend and I dressed as 'half-married' people, with our top halves in wedding outfits and the bottom half casual," says Ms Rorive.

And what of the future? "To me, it doesn't replace marriage. I'd still like to get married one day."

A selection of your comments:

I find it a little insulting that straight couples, who have the right to marry, now want to co-opt what little recognition my partner and I can get for our relationship. We would marry if we could; as it is, our domestic partnership is the strongest legal tie allowed between us.
FX Hartigan, Medical Lake, Washington, USA

If we want a fairer, more equal world, the law should be TOTALLY blind to gender and sexuality like these people want. This is a simple, fair fact that somehow happens almost nowhere in the world, bar maybe Canada. After all why should, for example, homosexuals, not be allowed to full-on marry?

Jacob, Plymouth, Devon, UK

I would far rather have a civil partnership than a marriage. To me no matter how much they change the vows, marrige still comes with all the baggage and trappings of patriachy- the father giving the woman to her husband. Rather than sign up to that institution, I would far rather enter into a civil partnership where you get the benefits and commitment of marriage without the history.
Lizzie, London

This article saddens me that a union so amazing between two people has been reduced to being just something entered into for practicality. Something instituted by God for man-kinds benefit, has been reduced by man to mean nothing at all. Nowhere was it mentioned about love and mutual commitment to another person. Without this any union of this sort is doomed from the beginning.
Naomi Elizabeth, Warwick, UK

I take my civil partnerships just as seriously as a "normal" marriage, thankyouverymuch, because legally speaking it is marriage in everything but name. There is nothing "lite" about it. The whole idea of "partnership contracts" is nothing new, though, the Dutch have had these since forever. It's just there to sort out bits to do with house ownership, parental responsibility, etc. It makes perfect sense. Nobody should be forced to get married purely to get legalities like this sorted.
Martje Ross, Lancaster, UK

Didn't we used to have common law marriages in this country? Where if you lived together for more than 7 yrs, you were considered married?? And didn't those couples have all the rights of traditionally married couples? Why don't we have that anymore? I get the whole recognized partnership thing for gay and straight couples. Perhaps that is the way to go from here on out?
Kimberly, Illinois, USA

I am a happy gay man living with my partner of 20 years. I do not believe in marriage and object to legal life-long commitment, but the only reason why we entered a civil partnership was to protect the other partner in case one of us died, thus granting the other the benefit of full ownership of our flat. I am grateful to France for granting us this opportunity.
Arnaud, Lille, France

I think that the government should stay out of peoples relationships; irrespective of gender or orientation. How people organise their relationships should be up to themselves and they should get no advantage or disadvantage from it.
Cathy Grimes, Derby

My partner and I have signed a pacs agreement and took the whole commitment very seriously. We are getting married next year but decided that whilst we saved for our wedding this was the first step in showing our commitment to one another.
Eleanor, Luxembourg

This is one of the most depressing articles ever. Choosing a 'partnership' option because it's easier to get divorced? It just sounds like a bunch of commitment-phobes extending their ability to waffle about the idea of making a lifelong pledge to someone besides themselves. How did this generation become so self-obsessed? Marriage should be about not just the couple involved, but about the family they are creating. Without committing 100%, no one will truly feel safe, or secure. As soon as one person becomes too old, fat, or boring, they will be chucked in favor of a more exciting option. Children are left to suffer the consequences of this selfishness. What is happening to Europe?
Kelly , Santa Barbara, California

It's a bit childish....wanting the benefits of something without actually committing to the work that goes into it. It's like wanting the benefits of a healthy lifestyle, without actually committing to living healthy. Or wanting the benefits and protection of being a citizen of a good country without committing to living in, loving and protecting that country.
Andrea, Richmond, BC, Canada

What about equality (and tax breaks) for people who want to commit to polyamorous relationships? Or single people who wish to commit to being single? Or people in non-sexual stable relationships/partnerships?

There is a certain old-skool logic in having a separate status for a heterosexual couple who have committed to one another.

Once that logic is (rightly or wrongly) dissolved, what is the case for limiting these sort of stable commitments to a pair of people?
Andrew, London

The reason so many couples get 'Pacsed' in France is because of the tax laws. I am in the process of buying a house here with my long term partner and while we have never considered getting married, despite having two children together, we are likely to go for the Pacs purely for security in buying a house together. If we didn't and something happened to either of us, the French hereditary laws would consider that we had made a gift to a non-family member and the surviving partner would have to pay 60% on the 'gift'. So, purely to protect our investment for all the family, we need to get officially hitched - something we didn't need to consider when we bought a house together in the UK before moving to France.
Kate, Chalencon, France

Marriage is a series of social taboos created by the church and administered by government for the sole purpose of stabilising society--it prevents disease, provides property heirs, prevents social dispute. It need not be Holy or spiritual. Love, on the other hand, does not need marriage. Nice to see it all being re-thought.
tomD, Calgary, Canada

I have often wondered how the government could be involved in a religious ceremony anyway, and thought that a domestic partnership, a two-man corporation in fact, would be entered into with more intelligence and forethought than a dramatic flowery ceremony that leaves too many questions unanswered. Writing corporation papers, with the intent and structure and means of dissolution written into them, with by laws, etc. would shape partnerships more completely, be simple to dissolve, and everyone would be on top of them, as it were. All nice and legal, the way corporations are supposed to be. That's the business of Government, not sappy displays of adoration and empty oaths made in the swing of sexual desire, which fade in the morning light. All marriages should be such tight legal statements and that's what governments is for. Later, if the parties so desired, they could march into some religious facility or anywhere for that matter, and have the silly ceremony for what it's worth, and it's usually worth a great deal if you're paying for it, no matter how long it lasts.
molly cruz, playa junquillal costa rica

As far as I know the civil partnership in The Netherlands is also open to both homo- as well as heterosexual couples. It would also be logical within the Dutch legal framework. Legally there is no such thing as a 'gay-marriage', only the fact that marriage is not closed to same-sex couples (and will hopefully turn out gay in the other/origional meaning as well). The same goes for the civil partnerships.

There are also legal provisions by which a marriage can easily be changed into a civil partnership and vice-versa. The former apparently, is often used to arrange a speedy divorce.

These are personal cont(r)acts adults willingly engage in. The scope of the contract is indeed a legal issue of importance. It should however not be a matter for any state, or other authority, to dictate which (combination of) gender(s) is/are allowed to participate.

As a happily married gay man, I wish the Austrian campaigners success in their fight for gender- and sexual equality.
Arnt de Lange, The Hague, The Netherlands

A marriage cannot be made unless it involves the opposite sex. It cannot be classified as a marriage which is an institution for the production of children. Same sex couples do not have the potential for this and therefore need a different recognition of their relationship commitments. Not less equal just different.
Lief Van Cleef,

People of the same sex cannot enter into marriage. It is not possible. The thing that people of the same sex are entering into is some sort of counterfeit of marriage. Just like counterfeit money it looks like the real thing but it isn't. Bank staff are trained to identify counterfeit money by studying real money. So it is with marriage, only someone who is married can tell you exactly what it is. After 25 years of marriage I would say it is wonderful.
John, Fort Collins, CO, USA

But why would anyone be interested in a union that doesn't require commitment? It just blows my mind how our culture is just so non-committal in every way. What does it say about the extent of one's love for another that they are not able to swear an oath and a covenant of love to the other? What does it say about the actual act, when they are choosing a mode of relationship which facilitates the get-out clause? It's just nonsense! We say that the institution of marriage kills romance. That's just not true! It actually fuels it.

But then obviously if you enter a marriage based on a lovey-dovey feeling, it's not going to go far! A feeling is no basis for a life of deep love. The passion flows from the promise, the decision, the resolve to stick to one another and to love one-another in actions instead of simply through feelings...
Nathan, Versailles, France

In a city where same-sex couples just recently won the right to get married, I was delighted to see that this was shown through the removal of gendered terms on the marriage license application. Though we don't have civil unions, I think it is very important that any form of legal joining of two people should not consider gender. This would be legal discrimination in any other setting, and denies a large population of certain legal rights. For religious organizations that oppose such unions have a right to oppose it, but that is a religious matter with no place in government. For those looking for a marriage in a church, there will always be some churches who are open and welcoming to all. The separation of legal aims and religious aims is extremely important. Religious opinion can be no justifiable reason to support the denial of legal rights to any portion of the population.
Elisabeth, Washington, DC, USA

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