The Republic of T.

Black. Gay. Father. Vegetarian. Buddhist. Liberal.

Civil Unions. Achievable, But Not Equal

I tend to agree with Michael over at Gay Orbit, regarding civil unions. But I’ll get to that in a minute. I understand what Bruce (guest blogging over at Sully’s), whose post Michael was responding to, is trying to say, but I think it misses several points.

Civil unions are achievable, but I think full marriage rights for gays will probably not happen any time soon. In my opinion, it is silly to allow the semantics of a word stand in the way of getting what is important for gays: the right for their partners to have the material rights of married couples in areas such as health benefits, inheritance rights, and so on. I think this is a case of allowing the perfect to be the enemy of the good.

Except that the “good” here isn’t all that good. At least not to anyone who’s paying attention.

First, there’s Michael’s argument that civil unions should be a concern to anyone who’s concerned about the state of marriage.

It’s very unlikely that they would be reserved exclusively for gay couples. Straight couples would be allowed to enter into them as well, and I have my doubts that civil unions would be very difficult to dissolve.

In other words, straight couples will opt for the civil union route as well. Do the Democratic candidates, and the Republican ones who support civil unions really want a marriage lite option that would be available to everyone?

It’s the same argument Jonathan Rauch made in Gay Marriage: Why It Is Good for Gays, Good for Straights, and Good for America, that one of the surest ways to undermine marriage is to create one alternative legal status after the other, in an attempt to keep gay people away from marriage, because what they end up doing is providing heterosexuals with an alternative to marriage.

It’s funny, or it would be if it weren’t so pathetically paradoxical, that in an attempt to “protect” marriage and promote “equality,” proponents of civil unions actually end up weakening marriage and perpetuating inequality. Because in many cases, when a new legal status is established for same-sex couples, heterosexuals end up gaining access to it, often — ironically enough — by successfully filing discrimination suits. At the same time, things become even more unequal because, while same-sex couples only have access to one legal status, heterosexual couples have access to marriage and the alternative legal status.

It may be that some heterosexual couples are willing to accept a legal status with fewer benefits and protections than marriage — and we’ve seen over and over again that civil unions don’t begin to measure up to marriage when it comes to benefits and protections, because it’s also less binding than marriage. Besides, if a heterosexual couple feels the need to shore up their relationship with more legal protections, they can do it in most states for in just a few days and for under $100. But still, do you want to create a situation where more heterosexual couples have more alternatives to marriage, at a time when so few are already getting married?

A little over a year ago, I wrote about a heterosexual woman in Washington state who sued for discrimination when health insurance coverage for her male partner was denied because they were not married and not a same-sex couple. Last month, when gay coupled queued up to register as domestic partners, there were at least some heterosexual couples there because the domestic partnership statute makes heterosexual couples eligible as long as one of them is over 62. (And as long as they’re over 18, sharing a home, and not married to or in a domestic partnership with anyone else.) Meanwhile in Massachusetts, same-sex couples are told they will lose their benefits if they don’t get married. It does seem as though different rules apply for different people. Call it what you will, but don’t callit equality.

In a chapter of Gay Marriage: Why It Is Good for Gays, Good for Straights, and Good for America. entitled “Accept No Substitutes,” sets forth two relatively simples rules on how to ensure heterosexual couples and same-sex have all the same benefts and protections:

  1. If you want the benefits of marriage get married.
  2. Let everyone marry.

And apply the same rules to everyone; one spouse per person, no marrying your siblings, etc.

In the Logo presidential forum one of the many groan-inducing gaffes delivered by Bill Richardson came when he was queried about domestic partnerships (which he said over and over again he worked to get passed in New Mexico, because “their achievable”) and answered, “They’re the same.”

That’s the third problem with civil unions, domestic partnerships, etc. The temptation to think “they’re the same,” and that once they’re achieved, there’s no need to more, because we’re “there.”

Whatever else we disagree on, I think we know better than that. At least I hope so.


  1. I didn’t want to get married. Not that I don’t love my husband, I really REALLY do. But I hate the idea of entering into an institution that is so entwined with religiosity and the treatment of women as property. But I needed insurance and even though my husbands company had insurance for domestic partners it was almost twice the cost and we simply couldn’t afford it and pay rent and feed our son. So seven years ago I got married. Then when the gay marriage debate captured my attention in a way it never had before I was all for it. Everyone deserved the same benefits of it. I may not care for the institution but I certainly benefit from it. My husband had a different take. He thought that marriage should be purely a religious affair and that everyone who wanted to partner with the legal benefits should have to have a civil union or a domestic partnership. Gay or straight. And then if you wanted to get “married” by your church or your local wiccan or your friend next door that would be purely religious or ceremonial or fun. And I can’t say that I disagree with him. As long as marriage is entwined with government we won’t have a separation of church and state and religious “morality” will be allowed to creep into the debate. If we simply create a separate institution altogether and remove “marriage” from the government than we can get to real equality. Am I off? Do I make sense? Am I actually arguing for marriage equality but just calling it by another name? It just seems to me that semantics is actually a problem here. And that if we can move away from the words that freak out some (I realize that hard core fundies aren’t going to give on anything at all. I’m not talking about them) maybe we can create a newer institution that is better for everyone. Offer a completely different kind of partnership open to all citizens.

  2. What always gets lost in these discussions about marriage is that government already creates civil unions under the law. You need not have a religious ceremony to marry, and the clergy who perform marriages are required in most states to register with the government for the privilege of carrying out this state sanctioned event. Just try getting your religious ceremony recognized as a legal marriage without a marriage license issued by the state.

    So why are states allowed to discriminate against gay couples? Perverted interpretations of the law in most instances. At least Massachusetts’ Supreme Court recognized that marriage, despite all the cultural and religious trappings usually associated with it, is, in America, essentially a civil right, one which the state should not withhold based on the purely religious objections of one particular religious sect.

  3. You know Steve I know that what you are saying is true. I mean I was married in a civil service by the justice of the peace. But even so it’s still the same institution of marriage. And in peoples mind they see they bride in white at an altar being given away by her father (skin crawls momentarily). I know that’s not the reality of the situation. And I know that’s why when people talk about the sanctity of marriage people like to point to Britney Spears and Vegas quickies to refute this. But if it were possible to remove the contract all together from “marriage” and call it…well, I guess we already have names -domestic partnership, civil union…then we can force them out of the argument that we are “undermining” their marriages. (I am not in anyway conceding that it is a good or reasonable argument at all!) More like doing that martial art thing where you just step out of the way and let their own momentum take them to the ground.

    But I also think that this new form of partnership be open to all people. Including us straight people. Something that doesn’t carry the baggage of marriage sure would make the feminist in me happy. And even easier dissolution of the partnership would be advantageous to all people.

    I am so glad that gays are pushing for real equality at last. And not just because I believe in human rights too. There is a totally selfish angle to my joy and that is that it proves that negotiated relationships between people not based on strict gender definitions work. And work well. Look at our wonderful blog host! He has a wonderful family. I have often thought of him and the things he has said about patience when I am upset with my own son. A win for the LGBT community is a win for the entire American community.

  4. Although there is some risk of undermining marriage, I still think civil unions are a good first step–as long as marriage equality activism continues to actual marriage equality.

    My justification for support of, for example IL HB 1826, is that there is a need for civil protections for our families now. These closer-to-equal civil unions would help in the short term. The damage to marriage (civil unions would be available to hets too here in IL) would likely be limited because it seems pretty clear that civil unions are clearly less than marriage.

    My feeling is that similar to NJ there will be a continuing push for marriage equality even with the passage of civil unions. The demographics (the under 30 crowd is overwhelming in favor of marriage equality) suggest that the political climate will change dramatically within a relatively short time (5-10 years).