Civil Unions

04.11.2012, 5:22 PM

I had a chance last night to go hear a talk by the “civil unions guy” — law professor John Culhane who wrote this piece in Slate in January. He was at the John Marshall Law School in Chicago presenting early findings from a survey he’s done of heterosexual couples who have signed up for civil unions in Illinois, the first such state with civil unions that allowed heterosexuals to enter them too. (France has been doing something like this for a while.)

He put together a little panel of two couples, one gay, one straight, both couples raising children, and both of whom were among the first couples to register for civil unions in IL. His research question — and the questions he asked them — center around why heteros might sign up for civil unions and if, and if so how, they might be different from same-sex couples who sign up.

It was a fascinating evening, in part because, from my point of view, a concern about civil unions is not how they would affect same-sex couples (they make sense to me as a useful route to legal protections) but how they might be used by straight couples. What I want to know is whether a straight couple signing up for a civil union is more like a cohabiting couple or a marrying couple. The latter breaks up far less than the former, so if you’re concerned about family stability and child well-being this is a pertinent question.

Culhane himself is a gay man in a civil union relationship and raising adopted children (he shared his personal experience as part of the talk). So there we were, him speaking, me listening, both asking the question about how marriage will be affected by all this, coming at if from different but I don’t think polarized perspectives.

One thing I came away with: The two couples on the panel, one gay and one straight, as well as an unmarried long term hetero couple in the audience, all had one member of the couple who was a lawyer and all three of them had done private contracts to help solidify their relationships (before civil unions were available or instead of marriage). They spoke knowingly, and the audience of lawyers and legal scholars nodded knowingly, about condo purchases, power of attorney, guardianship, trusts being better than wills, etc.

As a non-lawyer married hetero mom all I could think about was that it took until our kids were about 5 before my husband and I even managed to go find and pay a lawyer and do a will and figure out guardianship of our children if we were both to die or be incapacitated. And I know we’re pretty typical. Most people, that vast part of America that is “most” people, will never be able to manage to negotiate private contracts to figure all this stuff out. There’s got to be a simple clear way to sign up for it, some kind of institution that you say, yes, I agree to be a part of this, I’ve showed up at the court house and here’s my 45 dollars and my witnessed signature.

I still worry about an expanding menu of marriage and marriage-lite options and what that spells for a society in which marriage is already weakening and more than half of children born to women under 30 are born outside of marriage. I still worry about those who argue, as Culhane himself suggested last night, that perhaps these reciprocal agreements shouldn’t be limited to just two people in a sexual relationship. Culhane raised the example of two sisters or an aging parent and child. Why can’t they share benefits too? I had already talked enough for a mere audience member so I didn’t pipe up and say, “Why just two sisters? What if there are three sisters? What if a bunch of housemates want to do it? After we’ve taken the sex-that-happens-often-to-make-babies-and-what-do-we-do-about-that-fact out of the picture, what’s special about the number two?”

But I also know that same sex couples are and will continue to be raising children and as a parent myself I know you need some kind of a net and some kind of a name for what you’re doing.

So I’m listening. And thinking.

7 Responses to “Civil Unions”

  1. Ranger G (of the forest type) says:

    The assumption here is that same-sex couples seek a stable legal union, and that whether that’s marriage or some other status-based “union,” real marriage will sail on and somehow our society will drift upward, away from the dangerous trends of unstable marriages, single-parent families, and so on. But the agenda to normalize same-sex “marriage” is much different than that–it is to deconstruct marriage so that it is meaningless–as revealed in the “monogamy without fidelity” line used to “sell” the fight for same-sex “marriage” to the farthest left contingent of homosexual activists. Society does not need a “name” to bless same-sex unions so that they feel better about importing all or part of a child into their relationship–society needs to focus on and strengthen the natural family so that children are born to their birthright of knowing their mom and dad and enjoying what should be normative–being raised and nurtured by their mom and dad in a stable household.

  2. fannie says:


    I appreciate that you seem to have an open mind about this and are willing to listen. It sounds like the panel raised some issues that we (meaning society) really need to think more about without one side or the other in the “marriage debate” latching onto any admitted lack of knowledge and saying “gotcha!”

    Because I’m an attorney, my partner and I did know to draw up powers of attorney and living wills- since the marriage scheme, which acts as a default for many of these very important issues, wasn’t available to us. (Of course, now we have a legal civil union and the added benefits of that). But in states where civil unions/domestic partnerships aren’t available to same-sex couples, I worry about the families that can’t afford an attorney to draw up these documents, or don’t know that they can or should do so.

    And, I also worry about the families that aren’t defined by their status as a couple who can procreate together or as a romantic two-some in a mutually supportive relationship. [Insert "gotcha"].

    Ranger G,

    I think you need to talk to some more actual, real, gay people before you start yammering away about the “homosexual” agenda. There are certainly those in the LGBT community who are non-monogamous (just as there are heterosexuals who are non-monogamous), but the agenda of millions of same-sex couples actually honest-to-goodness is to enter into stable, monogamous legal unions.

  3. Chris Gable says:

    The civil unions for everyone laws bring up a real question that needs more serious treatment here. And that’s what does US law require as a minimum standard of equal protection and due process?

    Is a separate but equal status for marriage vs civil unions tenable in civil law in 2012 and beyond?

    The important reason to address that is that is where the fate of access to civil marriage lies, though I think the fate of marriage itself is something different, and something that can and ought to be thought of and handled differently.

  4. JeffreyRO5 says:

    I reject the two-tiered system of legal relationships that seems to be cropping up as a compromise to provide gay couples with legal protections for their relationships, while not offending those people who believe that straight couples deserve a privileged place in society for their relationships.

    If equal treatment under the law is to mean anything, we need to stop making exceptions. We keep failing our constitutional tests, whether for equal treatment and due process for black Americans, Latinos, women, or gays.

    Hopefully, civil unions are just an awkward way-station on the journey to equal legal treatment, including marriage, for all citizens. They represent a “separate but equal” institution and it is profoundly discouraging to be a witness to this sorry spectacle regarding adult legal relationships.

  5. mythago says:

    Elizabeth, you are entirely correct that “can’t you people just have civil unions?” ignores how simple marriage is vs. how difficult obtaining those rights and responsibilities piecemeal is. There’s a reason that those couples had at least one lawyer in them.

    My husband and I had a domestic partnership before we were married, and yes, it involved a lot of paperwork and getting this and that signed and filed, whereas getting married was paying a fee and filling out some forms.

  6. marilynn says:

    Jeffrey well said and I could not agree with you more. In fact a couple of hours ago I commented here saying almost the same thing as you only not as succinctly. As you have gone round with me before, I really find it disconcerting that any of us should feel at ease with anything less than equal treatment for everyone. Nobody’s rights are ensured in a place where differential treatment is lawful and par for the course. Not mine, not yours, not Elizabeth’s, nobody’s. I’m being discriminated against too, it does not matter that I don’t happen to want to marry a woman, if I wanted to I would not be allowed to and that pisses me off. On general principal.

    Elizabeth I have read other people stating that they too are worried about letting gays and lesbians get married – they think its like opening the door and letting all the rif-raf in; first gays and lesbians next it will be tyranny’s and then polygamous relationships and ultimately incest and why not just let pedophiles marry 3 year olds? It reminds me of the old commercials that called pot “the gateway drug” like marriage is the gateway drug for legalized pedophilia and other forms of debauchery. I don’t want to make light of that viewpoint (just a little bit maybe) but mostly hoping that people can be reasoned out of that opinion to the point where they can reflect on it and see the humor in having thought it themselves.

    The government does not really care about our health, their primary concern with incest is going to be that your already related to them, there is no legal need to “found a family” by getting married when the law already recognizes you as a family. Move along. Pledge your love in private but you don’t need to create a temporary contractual family in the eyes of the law if your already recognized as a permanent non contractual family because your siblings. Its just not the state’s concern to knowledge people’s love and sex habits. It would be unnecessary waste of their resources. If your not related but you want to be treated as a family with a joint income, you can’t get there without getting married. 2 unrelated people need to do that if they want to “found a family” contractually. So there is a more practical reason than just bearing mutant children for not allowing incestuous marriages, it does not serve the state any purpose.

    Spouses are responsible for one another the way a parent is responsible for a child. Your kid breaks something you pay for it. Your spouse runs up his credit card at the casino, you pay for it. Until your kid grows up or until you get divorced. About those benefits, did you know that people can claim their relatives as dependents on their tax returns? Its true if the relative qualifies as your dependent you don’t have to marry them to make sure that they receive your social security death benefits. It can be a sick sibling or cousin or even your own mother. No marriage required so there is not ou have brought up the issue of polygamy before and about marrying relatives before, sort of like marriage is the pot that will lead to the heroine of incest or the crack of polygamist orgies.

  7. attorney says:

    What’s a good company to use to store my documents? I’ve got a lot of paperwork in my house that I’m trying to store. How to most people deal with these issues?