Quarter of A Century With the Cohabitation Act (6)

Aro Velmet is a PhD student at New York University
5/5/2014 4:20 PM
Category: Opinion

The experience of other countries shows that regulating cohabitation is not an esoteric legal issue or the morally damaging project of a minor clique. Instead, we see that people form their opinions based on their personal moral, religious and political values; and traditional values, be it Christian or Neopagan, are compatible with gender-neutral cohabitation, Aro Velmet said.

Uncertainty about the future seems to be the force that spurs on the oppnents of the cohabitation act. Isn’t the law that is gender-neutral and regulates the legal relations of registered couples the beginning of a slippery slope that ends in legalizing gay marriage, journalist Toivo Tänavsuu asked in the program "Vabariigi Kodanikud" at the end of April.

The defender of the “traditional family” Varro Vooglaid believes that the law is being peddled by some international, well-funded “gay movement” that either ignores the people or gains its support with brainwashing. Erki Nool simply fears that the Estonian society is not ready for the cohabitation law yet. Who knows what explosion may ensue when forces as powerful as the state, family and traditions clash?

It is actually quite easy to answer these questions - gender-neutral cohabitation laws have existed in various countries for already a quarter of a century, starting with Denmark in 1989.

Obviously, one must be careful when comparing Estonia to other countries, because the cultural and social conditions are naturally different elsewhere. However, the countries with partnership laws are so disparate (they include secular Nordic countries like Finland, Sweden, Norway and Denmark as well as catholic southern European countries like Spain and Portugal, rich like France and poor like South Africa, conservative US states and cosmopolitan centers) that it is easy to find an analogue to our local concerns from the practical experience of the world.

The practical experience, in turn, shows that cohabitation laws are passed after wide-ranging lively debates, and as a rule, they have the support of both heterosexual as well as gay couples, and the conflicts that increase tensions in the media during these debates usually cool down later. There is no record of a collapse of society and morals in the thirty-seven countries where cohabitation laws currently exist.

So what could be learned from the experience of other countries? Varro Vooglaid is right about the cohabitation laws being supported by international and often well-funded organizations (for example, by the International Lesbian and Gay Association) and several human rights organizations like Human Rights Watch and various civil associations. In essence, these movements are no different from the associations that protect the “traditional family” (like Vooglaid’s Foundation for the Protection of Family and Tradition), although the proponents of the cohabitation law have probably not found an international organization as powerful as the Catholic church to endorse it.

There are many different opinions within these supporting organizations and many members do not always agree with the official positions of their associations, just like there are numerous Catholics who do not share the Vatican’s official opposition to gender-neutral cohabitation.

Since there are allies that have become organized for various reasons on both sides, then instead of looking for conspiracies, it would be more reasonable to look at how public opinion has responded to the passing of cohabitation laws and what have been the social consequences.

First, we can see that the regulation of cohabitation did not take place “against the will of the people.” For example, in France in 1999, 50 percent of people supported legalizing the so-called civil unions or PACS according to polls, after a long and lively debate in the parliament and the media. It should be noted that in Estonia, 46 percent of people supported the partnership law as of 2012.

The case of Spain is even more interesting; in 2005, 66 percent supported legalizing gender-neutral marriage and only 26 percent were opposed - that in a country where four out of five people are Catholic. The same could be witnessed in Argentina and Brazil, where legalizing gender-neutral marriage is currently supported by 70 and 60 percent respectively.

Many analysts argue that it was Catholicism that led these countries to legalize gender-neutral marriage, whereas in the secular Nordic countries it was cohabitation that was regulated. Here we can see that there may not necessarily be a conflict between the traditional Christian family values and contemporary modes of cohabitation - for many religious people, homosexual couples and Christian values can co-exist, even if some clerics disagree.

Third, we can see that as time goes by, the cohabitation laws become more and more popular among heterosexual and gay couples. In France, the number of PACS each year almost rivals the number of marriages and it is mostly heterosexual couples who register. The number of marriages has indeed gone down by a sixth, but in general, more people than ever register their partnerships. The number of births has even increased when compared to 1999.

Studying how people’s opinions on marriage and homosexuality changes, there are few signs of brainwashing and weak morals of the young. Last year, the Pew Institute in the US studied the change in attitudes of people from different generations and noted that support to gender-neutral cohabitation has gone up in all age groups (admittedly, the increase was especially rapid in people born in 1990 and later). Nearly a third of the people who changed their opinion did so after a personal contact with a homosexual friend or relative and a quarter of the people surveyed said that they thought more carefully about the issue. Only 18 percent said that they changed their views only to “go with the times.”

Let’s set aside the issue of to what extent the public opinion should interfere with people’s private lives for a moment. The experience of other countries shows that regulating cohabitation is not an esoteric legal issue or the morally damaging project of a minor clique. Instead, we see that people form their opinion based on their personal moral, religious and political values; and traditional values, be it Christian or Neopagan, are compatible with gender-neutral cohabitation.

The possibility to register cohabitation has not ruined societies, let alone religions and traditions - but it has created new forms of legal protection that have proven very popular and made people rethink their views. This could only be a good sign, because we all love people who think.

So let the debate continue in Estonia, but hopefully in a way where the focus is on arguments and the empiric, instead of fear and insecurity, because there has been a fair share of both in the course of this quarter-of-a-century long global debate.


Aro Velmet is a PhD student at New York University. His piece was translated from the original published in Estonian on uudised.err.ee.

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