Civil Unions vs Full Marriage Equality
Jan 11, 2012

Civil Unions vs Full Marriage Equality

Civil unions, as opposed to gay marriage, are often advocated for by the moderate right, and sometimes as a pragmatic solution on the left. The main idea is that civil unions provide a more reasonable approach that lets gay people enjoy the benefits of something close to marriage without upsetting those who do not want to share their institution with gay people.

Some on the right believe this to be a reasonable end goal in and of itself. Some in the left are also in this camp, but there are also those who find this a good tactical solution to advance gay rights in the current US political climate, even if it is not an end goal. Regardless of motivation, the idea of civil unions should be strongly rejected. I will take up those that believe it is an appropriate end goal first.

Let us be clear: almost all instances of civil unions (or domestic partnerships) that have actually been implemented involve two distinct sets of legal privileges for the two groups. There are issues regarding immigration, medical treatment, taxation, inheritances, gifts, and a host of other issues that crop up that make civil unions, as implemented, as a second class legal institution to full marriage. They are simply a lesser state legally. Particularly in the US, many of the problems are at the federal level, but most of implementations have fundamental differences at the state level as well. Differences with no rational or legal basis.

People that advocate for civil unions are already accepting that gays do have the right to spend their lives together and to be legally bound, just as straight people do. Any argument that some might use against gay people has already been capitulated on. How then could anyone justify that the legal rights should be close, but not quite the same? Small differences in laws are just not sensitive to the ideological arguments people give against gay marriage.

Let us imagine, however, that these issues were resolved and we had two different legal structures - civil unions and marriage - the legal ramifications of which were identical. Could this be justified? Again, no. The problem is now that we are making the distinction between these two legal structures for the singular purpose of symbolic discrimination. One class of people gets one name, another a different name. We have already agreed that they ought to be identical in terms of legal differences, so now we are using different names just to find some way, any way, that they could be different. If it is only a different in nomenclature, that is, if it is only symbolic, then we have to ask what is it symbolizing? Could is ever be justified to demand one name for black people who marry and another for whites? To ask these questions is to answer them.

The tactical argument:
Those that support full marriage equality, but advocate for civil unions as a pragmatic tactic, are well motivated. They recognize the difficulty of passing full marriage equality in the short term and think that civil unions represent a middle ground that increases the quality of life for gay people (which it surely does) and might actually pass, even if it is not perfect. However, there are several problems with this tactic.

The fundamental problem with anything to do with this issue is that some people believe there is distinct differences between a homosexual couple and a heterosexual couple. By accepting civil unions as a compromise, we are buying into that framing that there is a difference, and that the one group ought to get the one status and the other group another. We must remain vigilante to reject, categorically, this framing. Especially since so many are unaware of how large the legal differences are, we must be very careful to praise too loudly this second class status out of fear that it will be seen as good enough, and that there is no more work to be done.

I believe that gay marriage is coming close to a watershed moment. Reinforced by the ever increasing public opinion in the US over the last decade, and the cascade of gay marriage in Europe and Canada, I think eventual recognition of gay marriage in the US is very likely. There is some danger that when this watershed occurs (probably seen by a large number of states switching over the course of, say, a decade) that it will be to widespread acceptance of civil unions, not marriages. I want to ensure that when this occurs, it will be with full marriage equality. By pushing for civil unions now, in the interim, it normalizes and reinforces the idea of civil unions and raises the probability that they will indeed become widespread over full marriage equality.

Civil Unions for everybody?
One interesting proposal is to have government only recognize civil unions for everybody with all the legal ramifications that marriage has now. Marriage would then be purely a social thing where a church could proclaim a couple married, or two people could proclaim themselves married, but it held no legal ramifications until a legal civil union was recognized. Some on the left as well as some libertarians like this view and it has its advantages such as treating everyone equally and is a sort of trick that might appease some of those that don't want marriage to apply to gay people. However, there are several problems with this.

Tactically, the reality is that this is very unlikely to occur. Most people that cherish traditional marriage are not going to support, much less advocate for, abolishing the word 'marriage' from legal recognition. I think it is far harder to implement this than it is to expand the scope of the institution as is without the changes.

Secondly, all this involves is a tricky playing around with words with the attempt to appease everybody. I think the core conflicts - homophobia and not wanting gay people to have the same status as them versus those wanting equality - remain regardless of the word play. Moreover, I don't think those who are on the right side of this argument ought to have to give an inch. Perhaps if there was a tactical advantage to a compromise then okay, but as is it is vacuously attempting to appease those against gay marriage with word play when the resolution to this conflict will come by persuading people to accept homosexuals as true equals.

Most importantly, arguing for this, or raising it as a possibility, enshrines the idea that it is okay to exclude gay people from marriage as it is today and that there is some reason that we ought to change in any way outside of simply including gay people. There ought to be no need to have to change our nomenclature and legal system just for the purposes of making gay marriage more palpable to those who are against it.

I will finish on a personal note. I had the joy last summer to be part of the (Canadian) marriage of my two mothers in law, if you will accept my terminology. They can now proudly claim, to friends, family, and the government alike, to be happily married. It strikes me as deeply insulting and morally wrong to try and deny them any small aspect of that, even if it is just the name they are allowed to use. We have the right side of this argument, of that there can be no question. We should not, and must not, accept compromises on this fundamental issue. 

Thoughts on this post? Comment below!

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1 comment:

Elipsis said...

I'm really tired of reading these long write-ups of yours and not being able to find anything I disagree with, so I'll just add to your thoughts.

One argument that I hear semi-frequently is that marriage ought to be a religious institution. While that's all well and good, I always follow up by inquiring if that person would support legislation (or even a federal constitutional amendment) that explicitly prevents atheists from getting married. That usually goes interesting places.

Civil Unions for the gays and marriage for us normal people (written offensively intentionally) is just another attempt to apply the "separate but equal" doctrine and define second class citizens.

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