Civil Discourse on Civil Unions

First published January 20, 2005, in Between the Lines

Some of the nastiest mail I receive is not from right-wing homophobes, or even bitter ex-boyfriends, but from members of our own community who think I’m not progressive enough. For example, shortly after I argued in Second Thoughts on Civil Unions that we ought to fight for civil unions now and marriage later, I received an e-mail message with the following subject-line:

“Why are you such an Uncle Tom faggot?”

There was no text to the message, and no signature — just the subject-line. With some ambivalence, I wrote back:

“I received a message from you with the subject-line ‘Why are you such an Uncle Tom faggot?’ but no text. Was there supposed to be text, or did the question in the subject-line exhaust what you have to say on the issue?”

I didn’t expect a response: I just wanted to remind the writer that there was a person receiving his e-mail on the other end of cyberspace. Not that it did much good: a few weeks later I received a message with a similar subject-line and a long tirade accusing me, in the most obnoxious terms possible, of selling out our rights.

That kind of attack is unfortunate for a number of reasons, not least of which that it distracts us from the productive dialogue we should be having instead. I’m the first to admit that I could be wrong in the strategy I proposed for securing equal marriage rights. But if you’re going to attack that strategy, please try first to understand it. In brief, I argued that:

1. Properly crafted civil-unions legislation could grant all of the legal incidents of marriage (albeit under a different name). I am not talking about “watered-down” civil unions here; I’m talking about the full legal enchilada.

2. The difference between such unions and marriage, since it is not a difference in legal incidents, appears to be a difference in level of social endorsement carried by the “m-word.”

3. Our best strategy (in most states) for securing the tremendously important legal incidents is to fight for them under the name “civil unions.”

4. Our best strategy for securing the social endorsement (i.e., marriage under the name “marriage”) is first to secure the legal incidents. Then people will look at our civil unions, realize that they are virtually indistinguishable from marriages, start calling them marriages, and gradually forget why they objected to doing so before. That’s what happened in Scandinavia, and it’s happening elsewhere in Europe.

5. Attempts to force the social endorsement too quickly (by demanding the name “marriage” above and beyond the legal incidents) may backfire, resulting in state constitutional bans not only on gay marriage but also on civil unions. The upshot would be to delay both the legal incidents and the social endorsement.

Any of the above points could be debated by reasonable people, but (4) and (5), especially, merit further discussion, including careful analysis of countries where similar strategies have been attempted. But rather than providing such analysis, my critics accuse me of endorsing a “separate but equal” line akin to that espoused by racial segregationists. Why should we settle for the back of the bus?

The segregationist analogy is a poor one. First, while it is certainly objectionable that we should ride on the back of the bus, we are barely even at the bus stop yet, much less on the bus. Let us not forget that in most places in this country, our relationships have no legal recognition whatsoever.

Second, and more important, I have argued that we should fight for identical legal incidents to those of marriage. This is not the back of the bus or a different bus: it’s the same bus with a different name.

Is that name difference silly? Yes, it’s silly — maybe even insulting. But when health benefits are denied to committed same-sex couples, when a person can’t get bereavement leave upon the death of her same-sex partner; when loving couples are split apart because one partner is a foreigner and can’t get citizenship, that’s far worse than silly or insulting — it’s downright cruel. I contend that we have a fighting chance at ending such cruelty, and that once we do so we’ll have an even better chance at ending the silly name-difference (again, see Scandinavia).

I could be wrong, but calling me nasty names doesn’t show why I’m wrong. More to the point, it doesn’t get us any closer to the front of the bus.