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.