What secular humanists especially liked about civil unions was that they would be a wholly new institution, conceived entirely within the domain of secular law. They’d be free of matrimony’s tangled roots as both a legal and a religious construct, and they’d be free of matrimony’s historical baggage as an institution for transferring what amounted to ownership of the bride from her father to her husband. In twenty or twenty-five years, the thinking went, a robust form of civil union would be legal for same-sex couples across the land.
What was wrong with that vision? Today, many activists view civil unions as insufficient, a second-class “gay ghetto” institution that still separates same-sex couples from more favored opposite-sex couples. But don’t judge so quickly. Let’s jump back to fifteen years ago, and consider what many civil-union supporters (myself included) expected to happen next. Once robust civil unions were the law of the land for same-sex couples, this thinking went, the next step would be legal activism by opposite-sex couples seeking a way to give their unions the protection of law without having to resort to traditional matrimony with all its negatives.
I suppose that’s the real root of the horror of same-sex marriage to the reactionaries: it’s marriage between equals, and that’s not real marriage.
Depressing, isn’t it. I bet it’s true though. Straight marriage is reassuring because whatever those pesky feminists may say, everybody knows that the husband gets top billing. Non-straight marriage is terrifying because it means that inequality doesn’t have to be built into marriage.
They should get over it though. There are plenty of inequality-enforcers still operating and flourishing, and straight marriage will still be around to remind everyone of the hierarchy.