Making a case for civil unions

Posted on 09 Mar 2006 at 9:46pm

It’s not a question of riding in the back of the bus, right now
the bus doesn’t even stop for same-sex couples

Over the past decade most of us have argued for gay marriage without bothering to weigh the competing merits of “civil unions.” For the most part, our arguments have focused on why, as the subtitle of Jonathan Rauch’s definitive book “Gay Marriage” puts it, it is “Good for Gays, Good for

Straights, and Good for America.” We should keep making those arguments.
But it is clear that in all but a handful of coastal states, gay marriage is not going to happen in the near future. The idea is too new for many people to be comfortable with. Gay advocates have too few resources to mount an effective campaign to counter the onslaught by evangelicals. Legislators with an eye cocked toward the next election are not interested. Most conservatives are adamantly hostile, and most liberals, even if they favor gay marriage, are only quietly supportive.

Only an obtuse person fails to learn from experience. So it is time to adjust our strategy and focus our efforts on trying to obtain civil unions, a decidedly less scary proposition for straights.

Less scary? Apparently so. With no public outcry the Connecticut legislature approved gay civil unions substantially equal to marriage. And President Bush said during the 2004 campaign that if states wanted to establish civil unions that was fine with him.

But there are at least three interesting arguments against civil unions. Probably the most resonant is the notion that by providing gays with the substance of marriage but not the name, states would be declaring gays and lesbians second class citizens. In short, civil unions relegate gays to “the back of the bus.”

But that expression itself shows where the comparison with African-Americans breaks down. During state segregation black southerners were at least able to get on the bus and ride to their destination. But not gays. Currently the bus doesn’t even stop for gay couples it just drives right on by. Our task is to get on the bus. Then we can argue about seating arrangements.

A second argument against civil unions is that they do not provide the 1,100-plus federal benefits and entitlements that go with marriage. But those deprivations are not unique to civil unions. Legally married gay couples in Massachusetts cannot obtain those benefits either. The 1996 Defense of Marriage Act limited federal benefits to opposite-sex couples.

But, the argument goes, at least being married would give gay couples legal standing to sue in federal court to have the Defense of Marriage Act declared unconstitutional. So it would. But would you really want that case to work its way up the federal court system and be decided by the Supreme Court, given its current membership? And if the Supreme Court did strike it down, consider the impetus that would give to the Marriage Protection Amendment being promoted by religious right groups.

A third argument is that “civil unions” in other states, unlike those in Connecticut and Vermont, would probably include a smaller number of benefits than marriage, making them far from equal. But here again the point is to get a process started. Even if “civil unions” offer minimal benefits it is almost inevitable that as legislators and the public become comfortable with gay couples in formalized relationships, they will feel more comfortable adding additional benefits over time.

That model has worked well in California, where gay couples have obtained more and more benefits with each legislative session. It has also worked in several European countries that have gradually added benefits, in some cases resulting in marriage itself. Most surveys conducted in the United States show majority support for providing some benefits for gay couples. So let us work on obtaining those and then go on to others. If you cannot get all the justice you want, take what justice you can get. And then work for more.

Once you are in a civil union, you can refer to yourself as “married” if you like. It seems clear that once people are comfortable with thinking and speaking of same-sex couples as “married,” their willingness to accept gay marriage itself is sure to follow.

Paul Varnell is a columnist with the Chicago Free Press. Some of his past columns appear at the Independent Gay Forum (www.indegayforum.org.)
E-mail PVarnell@aol.com

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition, March 10, 2006.

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