Second Thoughts on Civil Unions

First published November 18, 2004, in Between the Lines.

Given our losses in the last election — all eleven states with same-sex marriage bans passed them, some by a wide margin — is it time to put aside the marriage fight?

You’re probably expecting me to say, “No, of course not!” But I won’t.

Let me be clear: I believe in equal marriage rights for gays and lesbians. I believe that we will eventually achieve them in this country — maybe even in my lifetime. I also believe that we never make progress unless we’re willing to push ourselves and others outside of our “comfort zones.”

But I’m fundamentally a pragmatist, and my pragmatic side is telling me that we need to put aside equal marriage rights for now and instead focus on civil unions.

The concept of civil unions perplexes many people. It differs from “civil marriage”:

marriage performed and recognized by the state.

Civil marriage, in turn, differs from “religious marriage”:

marriage performed and recognized by some religious institution.

(Most people want both, so they get married by a clergyperson who is also licensed by the state.)

“Civil union” is a term invented by the state of Vermont in order to grant all the (statewide) incidents of civil marriage to gays without using the M-word.

Civil unions are not necessarily recognized by other states. But neither are same-sex civil marriages (such as those in Massachusetts). Thus, with respect to state-level legal protections, civil unions and civil marriages seem identical.

What, then, is the difference?

It would be wrong to answer “just the name.” Names are powerful, and the difference in names seems to indicate a difference in reality. Polls suggest that many Americans who strenuously oppose same-sex civil marriage are willing to accept same-sex civil unions.

I used to think that such Americans were simply confused. Doubtless, many are. But I think there’s more to be said.

To understand why, let’s distinguish three things: (1) relationships, (2) legal rights and responsibilities, and (3) social endorsement. (Naturally, these things are related: relationships don’t occur in a vacuum, and legal recognition is often tied to social recognition.)

Now compare Adam and Eve, who have a heterosexual civil marriage, and Adam and Steve, who have a civil union. What’s the fundamental difference between them?

Despite what our opponents may claim, it’s not a difference in their relationships. Adam and Steve may be just as committed to each other as Adam and Eve. Adam and Eve can be married even if they can’t have children or don’t intend to, so it’s not that either. (And don’t even get me started about the “complementarity of the sexes,” as if the only or most important way in which partners complement each other were through gender.)

Nor is there a difference in legal rights and responsibilities-¬at least not at the state level. True, Adam and Steve lack important federal legal benefits-¬but that problem could be fixed with a federal civil union bill.
So we’re left with door number (3): social endorsement. It turns out that the M-word carries a blessing that most Americans are not yet prepared to grant to Adam and Steve.

Now here’s the kicker: you can’t force social endorsement. You can argue for it, fight for it, plead for it — but you can’t force it. Indeed, attempts to do so often backfire (as they arguably have in the last year, as over a dozen states created constitutional bans that they previously lacked).

If I’m correct, then there’s a sense in which marriage is not a fundamental civil right. For there is no civil right to social approval. The government can make and enforce laws: it cannot control minds and hearts.

To say this is not to deny that we have a moral right to such approval. Nor is it to deny that we have a civil right to the legal incidents of marriage — and thus to civil unions. These should be our focus now.

Many of us have long viewed civil unions as a compromise: fight for marriage, settle for civil unions. But the fight for marriage may have made civil unions less likely in some states. In my home state of Michigan, the constitution will now prohibit not only same-sex marriage but also “similar union[s] for any purpose.” And that’s unfortunate, since many people who voted for the amendment reportedly have no objection to civil unions.

So I suggest a different strategy: fight for civil unions now — with all the legal incidents of heterosexual marriage — and let marriage come as it will. We have a decent chance of securing legal protections for our relationships. In the long run, focusing on those protections may be our best strategy for securing the genuine equality that we want and deserve.