Sunday, November 09, 2008

Civil Unions and the All or Nothing Principle by Anthony McCarthy

It was one of the unanticipated benefits of sharing my thoughts about things like the political realities around gay marriage that I’d be subjected to several long lectures on why I, though a gay man, am not thinking correctly about the issue. My attempts to forego platitudinous stands on principle to try and understand the issue in real life today, are not to be countenanced. Oh, did I mention that those volunteer lectures were delivered by several straight men?

It’s kind of funny to have a straight man berate you, a gay person, for not being uncompromising enough on gay rights.

Watching one of the women who brought the court case allowing gay marriage last Wednesday. was difficult. She was heart broken and had every right to be. While I have reservations about the political practicality of winning that freedom in the courts at this time, she was asking for what is her right. That wasn’t where we disagree. We disagree on where the struggle is at this time and on how to obtain that right and the timing of it. But we apparently have an interim disagreement on principle.

In her statement she rejected civil union as an unacceptable compromise of equality. And, face it, civil union is a compromise position*. But we don’t live in a perfectly equal society, we all accept compromises in our lives. While she has an absolute right to reject civil union for herself, other lesbians and gay men don’t make the same choice, which is their right. I can’t see any reason to insist on what you can’t have or to delay having something better than the status quo just because you can’t get what is best. Not as a blanket principle, that is. Civil union which is essentially the equivalent to marriage would be the difference of a word, only. Other civil union laws that confer some benefits of marriage but not others would still leave those entering into them better off than before. That is a choice they have to make.

As for straight people who take an all-or-nothing stand on behalf of myself and other gay people, no, thank you, no. You don’t get to make that call. One of the more strident voices against compromise by civil union told me he was a married straight man when I pressed it. Doesn’t a straight person who enters into marriage in a state which doesn’t allow gay marriage actively accept that inequality for their own benefit? Shouldn’t their absolutist stand apply to themselves as well? Especially if they vicariously reject civil union for gay people who might disagree with their moral absolute? You would think that level of moral certitude would carry the obligation to not accept the benefit so unequally provided to them by the law.

Straight people don’t get to choose for gay people what compromises they accept when they can’t get it all. Lesbians and gay men don’t get to choose to reject civil union for others as a sell out. People have the right to as much equality as they can wrest out of an unjust society. Slaves denied the right to marry didn’t give up the attempts to form marriages and stable families, their status as chattels notwithstanding. They often tried and sometimes succeeded. Except in rare instances, lesbians and gay men in the United States aren’t faced with that kind of active prohibition to forming the equivalent of marriage. If they can’t where they live, they can move to a place where it is allowed and there are legal ways to provide some, though not all, of the legal protections of their committed relationship. While that necessity is unjust, it, never the less, is a possibility today. It is the status quo of the vast majority of gay people living in the United States. Even if California had allowed equal marriage rights, almost all other states don’t, the federal government and many corporations don’t and that fact still makes gay marriages in Massachusetts definitely not the equivalent of straight marriage even there.

There is no reason to see civil unions as settling for something, it can be a stepping stone, a way to obtain what rights we can, enjoy the benefits of those and fight on towards the farther goal of complete equality. The failure of the Equal Rights Amendment (which should be revived) didn’t mean that women shouldn’t enjoy what rights they could get in the mean time. I don’t think a country in which many places legally disallow a full range of rights based on gender preference can let the struggle for those lapse while this one, very difficult to obtain, right is focused on. We need as many of our rights as we can get at any one time. Marriage absolutists have no right to insist we defer those for a right many of us will not use to begin with. By all means, lets work on it, but not just on that issue.

* The idea of civil union might carry a benefit that marriage doesn’t, it doesn’t need to imply that there is a sexual relationship between two people. From what I understand the largest group of people in France taking advantage of a form of civil union are unmarried daughters and their mothers. I don’t see why sex should be a necessity for two people who want to maintain a stable household based on mutual affection and support and to have the law recognize and encourage that kind of household.