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Civil Unions: Achievable, 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.

Crossposted from The Republic of T.

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