By John Corvino
Massachusetts has marriage for same-sex couples. Vermont has civil unions, and Connecticut may soon follow. California and New Jersey have domestic partnerships, with many of the state benefits of marriage (substantially more in California). New York and Washington have marriage-equality cases pending. Hawaii has reciprocal beneficiary status, with a few of the benefits of marriage. We may have lost eleven ballot initiatives last November to opponents of same-sex marriage, but we certainly haven’t lost the war.
But as the debate over marriage equality intensifies, so does the debate over whether civil unions are an acceptable compromise. Those who support civil unions are a diverse bunch. They include:
(1) Gay-rights advocates who support full marriage equality but who see civil unions as an important step toward that goal. Call this group the “incrementalists.” (This is my own position, and I have argued for it in these pages.)
(2) Gay-rights advocates who reject marriage generally as a patriarchal institution and see civil unions as a better alternative for everyone, whether heterosexual or homosexual. Here we might add those who think of marriage as primarily a religious institution: according to them, the government should regulate civil unions, whereas churches should regulate marriage. Unlike the incrementalists, Group (2) sees civil unions as an end-in-itself.
(3) Opponents of full marriage equality who nevertheless support granting some legal recognition to gay and lesbian couples. These opponents run the gamut from homophobes who see such recognition as politically inevitable and thus tolerate civil unions as a reluctant concession, to moderates who have reservations about same-sex marriage but who wish to support their gay friends and neighbors in some way, to gay-rights advocates who (for reasons I don’t pretend fully to understand) agree that homosexual relationships are morally equivalent to heterosexual relationships but maintain that they should be recognized under a different name.
Some would assert that those in the last group are simply closet homophobes. Suppose someone were to argue that whites and blacks were morally equivalent, but that upon graduation, whites should get “diplomas” whereas blacks should get “certificates.” Even if diplomas and certificates were indistinguishable in every other respect – even if they opened the same career doors – the distinction would appear baldly racist.
Is the marriage/civil-unions distinction similar? In practice, it often is. Most people who oppose full marriage equality for gays do so not merely because they think we are “different,” but because they think we are inferior. Such people need not be virulent homophobes: many have gay friends and neighbors whom they love and support (to a point). Perhaps Group (3) should be divided into two subgroups:
(3a) Homophobes who, realizing that some recognition of same-sex relationships is politically inevitable, tolerate civil unions as a way of blocking full marriage equality.
(3b) Moderates who genuinely support some recognition of same-sex relationships, just not full marriage equality.
While both (3a)’s and (3b)’s oppose full marriage equality for same-sex couples, (3a)’s merely tolerate civil unions whereas (3b)’s genuinely endorse them. Even within such groups there are further significant divisions. For example, whereas some (3b)’s have concrete objections to full marriage rights, others have a vague notion that heterosexual relationships are “special” in some way.
What is interesting is that, despite these and other differences, all of the above groups agree in their support of civil unions. And lately, the most vigorous debates I have witnessed have not been between these groups and opponents of civil unions, or even between, say, between members of (1) and (2) or between members of (1) and (3), but instead among members of (1).
I find this state of affairs somewhat perplexing. Members of Group (1) agree on our ultimate goal: full marriage equality. And we agree on the means of getting there: an incremental approach with civil unions as the next step. (I should say, the next step “in most states,” since in some states, like New York, it may pay to proceed full throttle, whereas in others, like Texas, we ought to focus on more modest intermediate goals.)
Where, then, do incrementalists disagree? Mainly, we seem to differ over the size of the gap between our intermediate goal and our ultimate goal. Some incrementalists view the civil-unions strategy as a necessary evil involving complicity in the myth that our relationships are inferior. True, civil unions are a step forward, but they’re a far cry from where we morally ought to be. Others view the difference between marriage and civil unions as largely semantic (as long as such unions grant ALL of the legal incidents of marriage). In practice, they say, the difference civil unions and full marriage equality would be scarcely noticeable.
Such debate among members of Group (1) can be healthy and productive. But let it not obscure our shared strategy and our common goal.