First published at Between the Lines News on May 26, 2011
By the time you read this, the Rhode Island House will have passed a civil-unions bill that no one seems to want.
Many gay-rights advocates in the state, led by Marriage Equality Rhode Island, are opposing the civil-unions bill because it doesn’t go far enough. A majority of Rhode Islanders support full marriage equality. So does the governor, Lincoln Chafee. And Democrats vastly outnumber Republicans in the state legislature. Yet House Speaker Gordon Fox, a gay man, claims that a full marriage bill doesn’t have enough votes to pass.
Meanwhile, gay-rights opponents, with strong support from the local Roman Catholic bishop, are opposing the civil-unions bill because they believe it’s a step on the way to marriage.
They’re right, of course. As Vermont, New Hampshire, and Connecticut have shown, civil unions can be a gateway to fuller equality: all three states started with civil unions for same-sex couples and now have marriage. It will not be long before Rhode Island legislators realize that a hodgepodge of different legal statuses for gay and straight relationships in different states is logically, practically, and morally untenable.
I don’t follow Rhode Island politics closely enough to know whether Representative Fox is right when he says that there aren’t enough votes to pass marriage equality in the state.
And my crystal ball won’t answer hypotheticals, like how getting civil unions now will affect getting marriage later. Maybe it will speed it up, as people see us getting civil unions and realize that legal recognition of our relationships won’t make the sky fall. Maybe it will slow it down, as people deceive themselves into thinking that civil unions are just as good as marriage, even though they’re not. I just don’t know.
What I do know is this. First, when it comes to the real needs of same-sex couples, something is better than nothing. I say this as someone who lives in a state that constitutionally prohibits, not only same-sex marriage, but also “similar unions for any purpose”—in other words, a state that has worse than nothing. Getting civil unions now is something, and it shouldn’t prevent Rhode Islanders from continuing to push for full marriage equality, both locally and federally.
Second, I know that “separate but equal” never turns out to be equal.
We can see this quite explicitly in the Rhode Island civil-unions bill, which earlier this week was watered down to eliminate recognition of “substantially similar” legal relationships in other states.
What that means, in practical terms, is this: when traveling in Rhode Island, a civil-union couple from New Jersey will be recognized as such, but a married same-sex couple from either of Rhode Island’s border states (Massachusetts and Connecticut) would be legal strangers. So would, for example, a domestically partnered couple from California.
I’ll say it again: a hodgepodge of different legal statuses for gay and straight relationships is logically, practically, and morally untenable.
But it’s not just the lack of reciprocity that’s a problem. No matter how robust we make civil unions legislation, no matter how closely we try to mirror marriage law in it, the very fact that we call these relationships by a different name creates a legal hierarchy. People read difference into different terms.
So even if the legal incidents were fully identical—which they are not, not even by a long shot—their practical effects would not be.
We’ve seen this problem in plenty of real-life cases: cases where hospital staff deny civil-union partners access to each other until documentation is produced, where no similar request is made of married couples. Or where funeral-home directors fail to treat civil-union partners as next-of-kin. Or where people are forced to “out” themselves in employment or legal situations by checking a “civil union” box rather than a “married” box. Or—more commonly—where no “civil union” box is provided at all.
The fact is that we already have a legal status for couples who commit themselves to each other as family, to have and to hold, for better or for worse, in sickness and in health, and so on.
It’s called marriage. Civil unions are something less.
As I’ve said many times, something is better than nothing. I congratulate Rhode Islanders on getting something. And I encourage them not to waver in the ongoing fight for full equality.