Culhane: Should we hate civil unions, or love them?

Posted by John Culhane on

"I ask this question shortly after the announcement by Hawaii Governor Linda Lingle that she had decided to veto the civil union bill that was passed by the legislature in late April.

"With her body blocking the state seal – with its (loosely translated) motto of “The life of the land is perpetuated in righteousness” and its depiction of the Goddess of Liberty – Lingle issued the by-now boilerplate blather about letting the people, rather than the legislature, decide. It’s as though she’d just been transported to a place where the rules of representative democracy had been suspended.
"But I want to focus on something the governor said during her press conference: Civil unions are marriage ‘by another name.' Since she opposes marriages of same-sex couples (she didn’t say why), she also opposes civil unions.

"So, are civil unions the same thing as marriage? Well, no. But they’re much better than no relationship recognition at all. With a civil union, you get all of the tangible, quantifiable benefits of marriage that a state can confer. For some – even some gays, like collaborating conservative Jonathan Rauch  – that’s all that courts should require.
"The civil union has been a marker for legislative ambivalence since its creation by the Vermont legislature a decade ago. Required by its state supreme court to do something to grant equality to its gay and lesbian couples, the legislature (and Gov.  Howard Dean) took the easier of two tough paths and enacted the civil union law, which bears the scars of its own inconsistency: It confers all of the state rights of marriage on same-sex couples, but pointedly states that marriage remains the union of a man and a woman.
"So how can it mean the same thing as marriage? Lingle might be right to say that civil unions are marriage 'by another name,' but names have weight. The word 'marriage' is particularly totemic, as we can emphasize by this table-turning little experiment: Imagine a suggestion that same-sex couples’ unions be called marriages, but that opposite-sex couples would be granted the right to enter into civil unions. Would anyone then really want to suggest that the name wasn’t terribly important?
"Perhaps nowhere was the importance of this distinction better understood and deconstructed than by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court. Writing in response to the question whether the legislature might carry out the court’s mandate of conferring marriage equality on same-sex couples by creating the civil union, the court said this of the proposed bill:              

 t is a considered choice of language that reflects a demonstrable assigning of same-sex, largely homosexual, couples to second-class status. The denomination of this difference…as merely a 'squabble over the name to be used' so clearly misses the point that further discussion appears to be useless.

... "But as it is, states that want to continue the second-class citizenship of same-sex couples can hide behind the fig leaf of civil unions, noting that they provide all of the same rights as marriage. If and when DOMA is repealed, civil unions will stand, naked, as both reality and symbol of the lesser status afforded our relationships.

"Civil unions may well have been – and may, in some states, even continue to be – politically necessary compromises, way stations of a sort on the route to full marriage equality. But we should continue to point out that there’s plenty in a name."

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