Monday, July 18, 2005

Marriage vs. Civil Unions

The fight for marriage equality is more than just words.

By Steve Charing

During a recent conversation I had with a straight Republican, I had asked him how he would feel if two gay people on his block would get married. "I don’t care what these people do," he replied. "Just don’t call it marriage."

That appears to be the sentiment found across straight America. Indeed, poll after poll confirms that a much larger percentage of the population would approve a civil union-type arrangement for lesbians and gays than they would marriage. Many within the LGBT community also believe that there would be far greater support from heterosexuals for "gay rights" if we advocated civil unions rather than marriage.

The term "gay marriage" or "same-sex marriage" ignites a fire under the anti-gay, anti-choice, anti-separation of church and state forces that, with unlimited resources and venom, have been influencing a growing number of elected officials. Governor Robert L. Ehrlich, Jr., for example, caught in the web of these religious extremists, vetoed the recent Medical Decision-Making Act and justified his action by falsely declaring, "…the creation a new term of life partner will open the door to undermine the sanctity of traditional marriage."

Delegate Marshall T. Goodwin, who represents the 40th legislative district from Baltimore, was one of three Democrats who had co-sponsored the failed attempt to pass a constitutional amendment during the 2005 General Assembly session that would restrict marriage as a union between a man and a woman. In an interview with Baltimore OUTloud in February, he explained his stance by saying "I’m against [same-sex marriage] from a moral and religious perspective." Del. Goodwin pointed out that the word "marriage" is what riles African-American ministers with whom he has ties and that he would "consider" another form of gay union.
Based on these examples, many would argue that a more pragmatic, politically acceptable approach would be to advocate civil unions and not push for marriage equality. A partial victory is better than no victory. A half a loaf is better than nothing.

I disagree.

Like many other LGBT activists, I believe that the fight for marriage equality is a civil rights issue. Religious bigots also opposed marriage rights for African-Americans and until fairly recently, marriage for interracial couples. It required court decisions to remedy this blatant form of discrimination.

Our opponents have used the religious angle to scare the population into believing the "sanctity" of marriage would be destroyed if same-sex couples were permitted to marry. The fact is, marriage is a civil contract between two parties—not necessarily a religious pact. Nearly half the marriages that take place in the U.S. and a larger percentage in Maryland eschew a religious ceremony. And nobody could force a religious institution to marry individuals counter to their beliefs.

Civil unions, while a good first step, affords separate but unequal standing. Although such arrangements allow same-sex couples limited benefits within the border of a particular state (only Vermont and Connecticut have such arrangements on the books), these benefits do not extend to other states.

Marriages, on the other hand, are recognized in all the states, and bring with it sweeping legal protections, medical decision-making rights, federal benefits and yes, divorce. There are a total of 1,138 rights and benefits, including those protections contained in IRS, Social Security, Medicare/Medicaid and Immigration laws, that are accorded to married couples.
Separate but unequal experimentation had failed in America as evidenced in the Jim Crow South, which mandated that blacks use separate drinking fountains, rest rooms, hotels, etc. Relegating LGBT couples to civil unions rather than marriage would similarly assign us to second-class citizenship. Only integration and equality helped overcome the prejudice and hatred that existed. The same should apply to gays and lesbians.

Dan McCarthy, a father of a gay son and is the co-chairman of the PFLAG-Howard County’s Advocacy Committee, reminds us that "gays and lesbians, as citizens of the United States of America are full and equal participants in this great country. Their right to equal treatment is guaranteed by the 14th Amendment's ‘equal protection’ clause."

He adds, "Since the 2003 Supreme Court decision Lawrence v. Texas established that the expression of their relationships could not be criminalized, no reasonable argument remains for withholding of this stabilizing and vital societal institution. As it stands currently, heterosexual couples are getting a ‘special benefit’ that is being denied gay and lesbian couples. This is situation is fundamentally un-American."

Obviously the struggle to win marriage equality will be long, hard and painful. A favorable ruling in the ACLU-Equality Maryland-filed lawsuit Deane and Polyak v. Conaway, which charges that excluding same-sex couples from marriage violates the state constitution’s guarantees of equality, will set off a major backlash against the LGBT community. Oral arguments are now set for August 30 at the Baltimore District Court, so in the fall expect a decision to be handed down.

Brace yourself for a homophobic tsunami. We must endure the hits that will continue to be levied against us by the religious right and the politicians who are beholden to them. No fight is worth it unless there are legitimate outcomes. Marriage equality is a legitimate outcome—not some form of civil union, which is merely window dressing and restrictive at that. Even the terminology is clumsy: what does someone say, "we just got civil unionized"?

Words definitely have significance. In his excellent book, Why Marriage Matters: America, Equality and Gay People’s Right to Marry, Evan Wolfson dislikes the terms "gay marriage" or "same-sex marriage" because they implies that same-sex couples are seeking rights and privileges that married couples don’t have. "We don’t want ‘gay marriage,’" writes Wolfson. "We want marriage—the same freedom to marry, with the same duties, dignity, security, and expression of love and equality as our non-gay bothers and sisters have."

We’re not asking for anything more, and we shouldn’t settle for anything less.