On June 26th, 2015, you may have heard a nation exhale as those active in the struggle for equality learned of the Supreme Court’s ruling supporting same-sex marriage.
Directly behind this amazing leap in US history, was President Obama, whose personal agenda had reflected a long-standing commitment to this issue. The President introduced initiatives such as a repeal of the Don’t ask, Don’t tell policy, as well the Defense of Marriage Act. The latter proposed a replacement entitled the Respect of Marriage Act, which was last introduced on January 26th, 2015. The intentions of the bill were to remove the existing, standard definition of marriage, replacing this with an order to defer to the states to create their own.
Preceding these initiatives, many states already had adopted Civil Unions, which provided an alternative to marriage for same-sex partners. Although thousands did form civil unions, the saga continued in the fight for real marriage. In the literature to come, we examine Civil Unions as a status, its relationship to marriage, and reveal its crucial role in establishing equal rights in marriage.
What gay people want
In our discussions around marriage rights, do we ever stop to ask ourselves what the argument is really all about? The answer is really very plain and simple: Gay people want the exact same things everyone wants.
Indeed, we all want the ability to visit a loved one in the hospital, to make a joint purchase on a first home, to pick up a young one from school, to be recognized as a family member, to take out joint financing, enter a joint lease agreement, to speak on a partner’s behalf (and be spoken for), adopt a child, pay family bills, and utilize tax benefits. The major problem that unmarried partners face, regardless of gender, is that they lose out on approximately 1,049 legal benefits married people have, a number recognized by the General Accounting Office in 1997 (lesbianlife.com, civil union vs marriage).
What are civil unions?
Simply put, the term “Civil Union” refers specifically to same-sex partnerships; and it relates only to whatever legal status is provided by the state of origin. In the US, only a handful of states actually offer Civil Union registries, like Vermont, Oregon, and Washington.
All Civil Union legislation shares a common goal, however. That goal is to provide access to certain benefits and assurances normally entitled to married couples in accordance with state laws.
It might surprise you to learn that several countries, such as Brazil, the UK, and Denmark, had adopted Civil Unions as a legal status ten, twenty, and thirty years ago (Wikipedia.org). The status initially was made for unmarried heterosexual couples, but Civil Unions are now generally intended only for same-sex partners. Many countries use different names for these provisions; and their definitions vary widely.
The “You guys decide” policy
In a political fire, ‘drastic’ is not always smart. Heavy-handed initiatives that stand to totally threaten one side’s position can almost always expect massive pushback. President Obama supported the Respect for Marriage Act, which stood to repeal the Defense of Marriage Act. This small but powerful revision just may have paved the road to success.
On its face, the deferment to the states to decide how to handle this issue, may have appeared to some as a minor effort, political mumbo-jumbo, or as a diversion tactic that merely passed the buck’. Some argue, however, that deferring to the states to do marriage in their own way was ingenious, as part of a plan designed to evolve on its own momentum.
Civil Unions were a great jumping off point because the introduction of the concept allowed a gray area to exist as a reality. Many began to realize that the only thing they had fighting against were politics aimed at taking something away from otherwise deserving people. They likely discovered that existing unions didn’t affect their own lives at all. For others, it will take more convincing.
This is where social evolution takes place. Let us take note that one of the greatest benefits to the Civil Union status, is that the status transfers, so that it must be recognized by any state. With the full support of the white house on this issue, what will happen as unionized couples spread out to other states, and moreover, in areas where some unions are recognized but not others?
The fuel to the fire
It does stand to reason that the evolution of civil unionization started on a much smaller scale. Some organizations and employers offer benefits to an employee and their spouse or domestic partner. Whether the employer intended this to include same-sex partners – well, you read the fine print. The point is, the forming of domestic partnerships and civil unions partnerships has muddied the waters just enough to raise discrimination flags. “Domestic partnership” clauses excluding same-sex partners in any capacity may have to be addressed. With deference to federal standards, each state may just find themselves legally obligated as the stakes rise over time.
You want it, you got it
So were civil unions supposed to be a replacement for marriage? Well, not necessarily. Civil Union legislation was placed by a few states as a reasonable alternative to grant at least some benefits to same sex couples. But it does not even come close to replacing marriage. Not only are Unions only applicable at the state level, but consider that those entering into marriage generally do so for reasons centering around love and kinship. Consider that marriage includes very personal, emotional, and religious feelings or beliefs. The Status confers something special upon a couple, that most people can understand and abide by. Some LGBT activists assert that the civil unions aren’t commonly understood and therefore, largely unenforced. Further, they argue that the term “civil union” has served to increase stigma, where its partitioning of same-sex partners into a single category further isolates them.
Civil unions converting to marriage, and the link between these
While it’s too soon to gather US data, the Office for National Statistics has published the following provisional data for England and Wales, where same-sex marriage has been legal since March 29, 2014.
On December 10, 2013 , in anticipation of its formality,partners in established civil unions were allowed to convert to marriage, if desired. According to statistics (available at http://www.ons.gov.uk/), it appears that approximately 1,227 civil unions were formed in the first three days they were allowed to do so; but the uptake of marriages (as allowed starting in March 2014) was surprisingly low, with only 98 taking place in the first three days. Experts note that this may be because civil unions were available as the only option at the time; and the data does not reflect the number of partnerships formed after the initial three days. The marriages however, appear to follow the seasonal flow of most marriages as we know them; with a spike in marriages occurring during the summer months.
Most notably however, are the 993 conversions to marriage within the first 3 days conversions were allowed, as is representative of the 1,227 civil unions initially formed.
In conclusion, there’s no doubt the personal commitment to this agenda by millions has been very real, indeed. Many states have begun eradicating civil unions and adding legislation to expand marriage as to include same-sex couples. Unfortunately we still have miles to go before stigmas around the issue fade. But if time does heal all, may we look upon this time in history, and say “remember back in the day when some people couldn’t get married….”