[Writing today just in case you're looking for something to read besides the endless bloviation about yesterday's SCOTUS decision on the Affordable Care Act... In case you didn't know, the individual mandate survives as a tax! If you have trouble remembering that, just take the famous line from that great B-film, Soylent Green ("It's people! Soylent Green is people!") and substitute: "A tax! The individual mandate is a tax!"]
In April, I traveled to Chicago to lead a discussion about the new, “improved” civil union law that Illinois passed last year. In case you missed it, the Land of Lincoln became the first place to allow opposite-sex couples to enter into civil unions.
But why on Earth would they want to? After all, civil unions are — by design — a crafty compromise that attempts to pull off an impossible sleight-of-hand: conferring equality by giving couples the rights, benefits and obligations of marriage, but not the name “marriage.” So I thought I’d get the lowdown on the legislative legerdemain by talking to a pair of “civilly united” couples (oh, how that phrase just rolls off the tongue…) — one straight, one gay. And what do you think the audience and I learned?
Well, let’s pause here for the needed caveat — I was talking to two couples, not two thousand (it was a smallish room), so whatever these folks said can hardly be called representative of anything. But their comments were illuminating, anyway.
The gay couple are friends of mine (translation: I was too lazy to find anyone else) who live in Oak Park, that beautifully appointed, Frank Lloyd Wright-inflected, suburb that’s a haven for “alternative families.” They have beautiful, smart and athletic 13-year-old twin girls, and their lives are a gay simulacrum of an upper-middle class, straight one. (So is mine — including the twin daughters1 — in case you’re reading a veiled criticism into that description.]
The straight couple, Jennifer Tweeton and Alex Rifman, I met through my research into civil unions law, a topic I’m writing a book about. The Cook County Clerk’s office helped me identify straight couples that were willing to talk to me. And my big question was: “Who are these people? Setting aside some older couples whose federal benefits might be at risk if they remarried (but not if they civilly united!), what reason would anyone have for choosing the Legal Brand X over a leading national brand? It’s a bit like those generic “Beer” cans in Repo Man, compared to, say, The King of Beers.
But Tweeton and Rifman don’t want the King of Beers. Could it be because the contents of the container are different? Maybe, if we want to extend this ridiculous metaphorical even further ( hmm….maybe the “Beer” cans contain civil unions, which aren’t as good as what’s in the other cans…..) But it’s also about the label. Not everyone wants what they’re expected to want,2 and perhaps some straight folks look at the “Beer” (label) and see an appealing “no-ad” kind of product — “marriage” without the hefty historical baggage. For them, the institution’s encouragement of gender roles, and its continued connection to religion3 is off-putting. Civil unions come with none of this, and many of the straight couples surveyed even cited a “plus” for this shiny new thing: solidarity with the LGBT community, whose members can’t marry anyone we’re interested in. (Yes, yes, we can marry people of the opposite sex. Big deal.) Since everyone can civilly unite, they say, we’ll do that. Fair’s fair.
For us, of course, it’s quite a different thing. Civil unions are seen, accurately I think, as conferring a second-class citizenship — and not just because few states recognize them and they carry no federal rights, but also because they purposely signal an “otherness” that’s anathema to the very folks (assimilationists!) for whom that’s a problem. And that’s why Greg Johnson’s argument has had so little traction. Writing shortly after Vermont invented the civil union, Johnson saw “the newness of civil unions as one of its [sic] strengths. The lesbian and gay community is free to write the story of civil unions on its own without having to borrow every term and tradition from heterosexuals.”4
But many gays and lesbians — at least those inclined to seek equality for themselves and their families — don’t want to “borrow” the term marriage, they want to own it on equal terms as every other (opposite-sex) couple. They want normalcy, not innovation: As one of my Oak Park friends said, he was in favor of civil unions for straights because giving them that right “normalized” the civil union. To carry that through logically: If civil unions are to be fully accepted, maybe everyone who wants to synchro-swim has to be made to jump into that same pool –but that would be to the exclusion, probably, of marriage. (It’s too powerfully normative to leave standing!) But that’s not going to happen in the near future5
So for now, “civil unions” really are two things, at least in Illinois and in Hawaii (which recently became the second state to allow opposite-sex couples to civilly unite): Something radical for straights, but something infuriating for gays.
- Different twin daughters. ↩
- Some aren’t beer drinkers at all. For them, there’s cohabitation. ↩
- It surely doesn’t help that in the U.S., clergy can solemnize marriages by “the power vested in them” by the state. ↩
- “The New Language of Marriage,” 25 Vermont Law Review, page 19 (2000). ↩
- Here defined as “sometime within the next millenium or so.” ↩