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May 10 2012

A wholly new institution

Tom Flynn has a good word for civil unions as opposed to marriage.

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.

11 comments

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  1. 1
    Kevin

    Sigh. This is semantics. Nothing more.

    Marriage is a civil union. A civil union is marriage under a different name.

    What possible detriments are there to a marriage that are not also contained in a civil union? Other than the lack of an optional (not required) religious ceremony, I can’t think of one.

    Civil unions that are not specifically and deliberately co-equal with marriage — including all of the drawbacks of marriage — are in no way equal to marriage.

    In France, in order to have the contractual rights assigned to marriage in the US, you must have a civil ceremony. A civil union, as it were. After that, you can have a religious ceremony if you wish or not. Either way, you’re still married. You’re not “civilized”, or whatever other term you want to apply to it.

    The problem is that in the US, various governments assign rights to marriage that are not assigned to other contractual forms of pair-bonding.

    Magically transforming all marriages into civil unions won’t stop that discrimination. Nor will it stop people from declaring that their civil union is a marriage.

    Seriously, no semantic jiggering is going to change the facts on the ground. And trying word-game work-arounds won’t stop bigotry nor discrimination. It’s not the word “marriage” that’s the issue here, it’s the homophobia.

  2. 2
    Steve

    >”In France, in order to have the contractual rights assigned to marriage in the US, you must have a civil ceremony”

    This originated in France after the violent secularization after the French Revolution, but it’s like that in pretty much all of Europe and South America.

    The US’s weird system where all clergy can perform legally valid weddings is really the root of most of the misconceptions people have about marriage there.
    The UK has a hybrid system where most large sects can perform legal ceremonies, but entirely civil ceremonies officiated by a government registrar are also possible (which is becoming more and more popular).

  3. 3
    eandh99

    But France also has a less-than-marriage civil union, originally just to allow for gay couples and now used increasingly by straighs – the PACS. Straight folks get choices, gay folks get PACS. Or then there’s the UK system, marriage for straights and civil unions for gays. As long as there are significant social and legal advantages associated with marriage, then equality will mean getting marriage opened up to all couples. Marriage doesn’t have to be a religious ceremony AT ALL, and it’s a victory for the churches that we let them control the language here.

  4. 4
    Steve

    Exactly. Why let churches have something that doesn’t belong to them in the first place? Priests didn’t even get involved in the marriage business until some time around the 12th and 13th centuries. They didn’t declare marriage a sacrament until the 16th century. The Romans already had completely secular marriage laws. So why let religion have something that they appropriated during the middle ages?

  5. 5
    Matt Penfold

    In the UK we have civil partnerships for same-sex couples. Whilst legally they are not marriages the do carry the same rights and responsibilities as marriage does. The law governing these partnerships specifically states that where other laws refer to marriage that must be taken as including civil partnerships. The British public and media just call them marriages anyway.

  6. 6
    Riptide

    When I got married, it was at a private ceremony with a civil servant and friends. We wrote the vows ourselves, based on some old Celtic poetry that we liked at the time. It was about as un-religious and ahistorical as you could get (we both kept our names, and *I* moved in with *her* well before the ceremony took place).

    But we’re still married. And if we can be married, simply because we have complementary genitalia and not for any other institutional reason, then it *is* an issue of semantics. Marriage itself has evolved into a wholly secular institution–in short, marriage *is* that new institution. Luckily I live in Canada, where any two people can get married as long as they’re both consenting adults, with religious baggage or not. And the world doesn’t seem to have imploded.

  7. 7
    eric

    The US’s weird system where all clergy can perform legally valid weddings is really the root of most of the misconceptions people have about marriage there.

    In principle, its not too different from the French system described above. You go to the court and get your unsigned license. You then have to find an appropriate offical who will attest that you really want to be married and its not a sham. Then you go back to the court and turn in your form, with your fee, and bang, you are married.

    The US-weird part is that different states have different rules over who can sign that form. There is no single, federal rule about that. In a lot of states, a judge or court clerk can, and no priest is technically needed at all. In others, a priest must sign first. In states where a priest is required, there may be districts where the requirement is pro forma (i.e., the state will keep licensed priests on hand to do exactly this). In other districts, you may actually have to do the legwork yourself.

    When it comes to opposition to ‘separate civil marriage’ by gay marriage supporters in the US, I think there’s really two concerns on their minds. First, there is just no sense in it. Creating a separate licensing process or license form for gay people would be an act of sheer meanness with absolutely zero civil benefit or sense behind it. Whatever the license form says, just use the current form for future gay marriages. As long as there is one license for all types of marriage, I don’t think proponents care overmuch about wording. Frankly, I don’t even remember which word (union or marriage) my state uses. I haven’t looked at the paper in years.

    The second issue is more substantive but (IMO) somewhat less likely: gay marriage proponents worry that conservatives and the state will use the creation of a separate process to make it harder for gay couples to get that signature. The processes should be the same. Not equivalent, the same. There should be no more or different steps for, for example, having a county clerk or your liberal unitarian minisiter sign it compared to having an RCC priest sign it.

  8. 8
    Steve

    The difference with the European system is that in Europe (and countries that get their legal traditions from there, but not the UK), you *MUST* get married at city hall first. Even if you value a church ceremony, you must have a short civil ceremony officiated by the government before a priest can get involved. People can then walk directly from there to the church or have the church ceremony some other day.

    Yeah, in the US you have to get a marriage license, but somehow that doesn’t seem to translate into a great recognition of civil marriage.

    There is another issue with Civil Unions or Domestic Partnerships. There are all kinds of government forms where you have to declare your marital status. Those all need to be changed to include CUs/DPs in addition to marriage. Which is really pointless work.

  9. 9
    Jer

    First, there is just no sense in it. Creating a separate licensing process or license form for gay people would be an act of sheer meanness with absolutely zero civil benefit or sense behind it.

    Actually it’s worse than that. There’s a phrase that is embedded in our culture that resounds in my head every time I hear someone talk about creating a separate licensing process for “civil unions” vs. “marriage”.

    “Separate But Equal”

    That phrase means something in this country, and it’s why even though I’m not gay, I will keep helping folks who are gay get access to the same marriage rights straight people have. Because the idea of “separate but equal” rights depending on who you are is really an awful one, and it’s incompatible with my ideals for this country.

    Once gay couples have the same marriage rights as straight couples I’m willing to talk about whether there needs to be a separate “civil union” process that doesn’t have the “baggage” of marriage (I don’t think there does – I think marriage can be changed to accomodate modern ideas of equal partnerships without having to give it up for something new, but I’m willing to keep an open mind about it), but not until that point.

  10. 10
    Eamon Knight

    Flynn is being silly. I recall the term “civil marriage” from way back — it just meant that you did the solemnities at the municipal offices instead of a church (my agnostic parents wanted to do that, but it would have upset their Methodist families. This was in the UK in 1943). As long as the legal rights and obligations are the same with or without religious involvement — and they’d damn well better be! — people will call it “marriage” and it’s stupid to set up a parallel system just to pretend it’s not the same thing. *That* is what preserves traditional religious privilege and asymmetry, not the friggin’ word.

  11. 11
    Vern

    I don’t think that the part about, “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,” is the only reason. I think that these people like it when they’re not in control of things and also that they don’t want people outside their groups to be happy.

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