Same sex unions are not a substitute for gay marriage
Feb 14, 2011

Same sex unions are not a substitute for gay marriage

For those supporting full equality, the shifting of the goal posts from gay marriage to civil unions is distressing. While a significant improvement over the previous status quo, there remain a significant gap that has both practical and symbolic important. Further, the arguments that are used to get to the point of accepting civil unions among same sexed couples almost trivially destroy these last remaining barriers to full marriage equality.

It should be firmly established that civil unions and gay marriage are not the same and have substantial legal differences. The differences differ from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, but include issues regarding: taxation, federal recognition, inter-jurisdictional recognition such as immigration, inheritance issues and many other things. The UK law which makes a civil-partnership versus marriage distinction has recently allowed the former to hold religious ceremonies opposed to purely legal ones; this represents one step forward eliminating a difference that exists.

The issue is the following: if one accepts that civil unions should be allowed, there is no reasonable argument that can distinguish between the benefits given to civil unions and to gay marriage. If one accepts that they should be in a civil union, how can you argue they should not have the exact same recognition in all these others areas of taxation and the like. The arguments that shift the goal post to civil unions from the previous status of no recognition all apply equally well to extend to having the full roster of legal benefits.

Suppose we make it so the respective legal benefits of civil unions versus full marriage were identical and it was a difference in name only, would this suffice? It still does not, for two main reasons. Firstly, if it is merely the nomenclature that is different then one is effectively using different words for the same thing because it applies to two different types of couples. It is saying that one is willing to give all the benefits of marriage to homosexuals but needs to call it something different simply because of them being homosexual - this is a fundamentally bigoted position.

Secondly, while one can make the legal benefits of civil unions versus gay marriage the same, there are still going to be social differences. These two words have distinct connotations in the public consciousness and the kind of benefits (or detractors) associated with "marriage" are noticeably different than for civil unions. If one accepts the right of gay couples to form partnerships, this equality should apply to both the legal and social differences.

In many places where civil unions have been legalized (or people are fighting for this) but not gay marriage, there is a sense that we can settle for this only slightly worse place of civil unions and that is enough. However, all the arguments that apply for taking it to civil unions apply to make the pretty easy extension so complete equality and we should make sure this extension occurs. I do think that one can advocate for civil unions as a strategy where, for political reasons, one is more likely to get civil unions than gay marriage. But we should view this as a stepping stone where after civil unions one advocates for full equality and doesn't fall into the mindset that civil unions are enough.


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