Will You Civil Union Me?

Will You Civil Union Me? May 28, 2015

By David Shankbone (David Shankbone) [CC BY-SA 3.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons
By David Shankbone (David Shankbone) [CC BY-SA 3.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons

Yesterday I had an interesting meeting with a young scholar who is about to go to work at a conservative Washington think tank. When our far-ranging discussion turned to same-sex marriage, he asked me why – as a gay man – I would not be willing to accept a civil union in place of marriage.

He elaborated on his question, explaining that he favors the elimination of all religious entanglement with governmental recognition of couples; government should simply register civil unions for everyone who wants to pair up. Then, once any couple – gay or straight – has that piece of paper, it will be up to them to decide for themselves whether to go to clergy for a ceremony and whether they want to call it a marriage or not. As far as the government is concerned, “marriage” will no longer be its concern or business.

Many secularists like this idea. It is ridiculous to us that clergy (including me!) serve as governmental agents when they sign off on marriage licenses. It doesn’t work like this everywhere. In France, for example, all couples are required to be married (and they do call it marriage) by a civil authority. Anything else they want to do with their priest, rabbi or imam is up to them. Clergy is not entangled with the government’s role as it is in the U.S.

This is a great idea and I’m all for it. Let’s definitely remove clergy from the legal equation of marriage or civil union or whatever we’re going to now call it.

My objection is that I find it insulting and unfair to ask same-sex couples to forego our participation in marriage as it currently exists while we wait for the United States to become France (hah!). Once we get what the straight people get, I will be very happy to join a coalition of secularists and fundamentalists who are equally eager to separate the roles of clergy and civil registration of unions. But to ask same-sex couples to sacrifice our rights while the country ruminates on whether we want to be France is ludicrous. And personally, I don’t have that kind of time or patience.

Over at his blog, historian Joseph Hoffman is offering his own challenges in his interesting historical analysis of marriage. After explaining how it wasn’t until the 12th century that marriage became a Christian sacrament, he writes:

One thing is clear: marriage in itself was not a remarkable thing. Love had nothing to do with it, and insofar as it was a significant social factor it was significant (especially in the upper reaches of society) because it established legitimacy and paternity. Its sole defining function was tied to procreation, legitimacy, and inheritance.

Over the centuries, the Church became more and more involved in the “consecration” of marriage, and more and more specific about the nature of the institution.

(I’ll set to one side his decision to ignore Jewish understandings of marriage which are quite different.)

His analysis continues with an explanation of how marriage, rather than serving as a symbol of love, “almost always involved some measure of political or financial advantage.” And so, he concludes, for these reasons and more it is his view that “the history of marriage is that its use over time does not make it a desirable model of ‘union’ for same-sex couples.”

He continues:

…I think homosexual couples would have been better off shunning in favour of civil unions that granted all the rights and privileges under law that “married” couples enjoy: Inheritance, insurance benefits, domicile—the things that were, in fact, always integral to the idea of marriage as a contract. Whatever is superadded to the civil union—the idea of sacramental authenticity, romantic love, child-bearing, the family—has only served to retard and impede same-sex unions within a war of definitions. Same sex-unions should have been based on a rejection of traditional marriage, not the appropriation of the word based on the Ken and Barbie embodiment of the twentieth century.

As with the abortion debate, people have been forced into corners as “for” or “against” gay marriage, whereas, in fact, the ones who should have been redefining the union as a union of likeness have focused almost exclusively on expropriating symbolism that is stubbornly resistant to reinterpretation, the incorporation of same-sex symbolism on the premise that marriage is “really” all about love and the right of two people, whatever their sexual preference, to formalize that love.

He concludes, perhaps correctly if entirely theoretically:

We are not at the same-sex marriage juncture of human history; we are at the end-of-marriage crossroads–not why not gay marriage, but why marriage of any kind?

To Hoffman I offer a similar response as I did to my conservative interlocutor. Marriage is right now the only existing American institution by which two people can join their lives. Even if it is destined for the trash heap of history, even if it should be entirely reconsidered, it is absurd and cruel to ask that this take place on the backs of actual living people who are denied uncountable benefits that others enjoy for the sole reason that they do sex differently.

The gay rights movement was not unaware of such arguments. There were – are – plenty of us who have no desire to live the “Ken and Barbie” way of life. We engaged in considerable discussion – seemingly endless debate – about whether we should fight for civil unions and leave the word “marriage” out of it. I even argued about this with my own husband (when we were only calling ourselves “life partners”).

The reason that proponents of same-sex marriage beat out the advocates of civil unions has nothing to do with Hoffman’s history of marriage-as-a-sacrament and everything to do with American history. We have been schooled through the experiences of others to realize that separate is inherently unequal. As it became increasingly clear that “civil unions” would not give us the full benefits that straight couples receive through marriage, our community (my hubby included) rejected it.

And rightly so. Because debates about the global future of “marriage” or whether the government should be entangled with clergy in “solemnizing” them are very interesting in theory. But my husband and I and thousands of people in our situation have real and pressing needs and fairness dictates that we should be allowed to get in on the same deal that the heterosexuals enjoy.

Once we’re in, we can all hold a big conference to change the entire thing. We’ll give the word “marriage” to religion and government will only recognize “civil unions” for everyone and France can guide the way. I’m all for it.

Once we’re in.

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