When civil unions were first proposed in Vermont in 2000, they were an important compromise to allow same-sex couples to access some of the protections marriage provides. Though they create a “separate but equal” (and thus still stigmatizing) system for same-sex couples, they are better than no rights at all, and states like Delaware and Illinois should be applauded for recently taking steps to support same-sex families in their states.
However, what was once a compromise is now being used as a weapon in New York and Rhode Island, where clear majorities of voters support marriage equality. These states are unique in that both already recognize out-of-state marriages between same-sex couples performed in Canada or neighboring states like Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Vermont. Same-sex couples in NY and RI already have marriage equality — they just have to go somewhere else to get a certificate. Truly, all these states are debating is whether they want to tap into the marriage license and tourism revenue that same-sex couples are currently taking elsewhere.
Among legislators in both states, the stigma against same-sex couples and their families is still winning, such that the mere idea of civil unions as a “compromise” is holding back the progress of marriage equality. In Rhode Island, House Speaker Gordon Fox (D) withdrew a proposed marriage equality bill and offered a civil unions bill in its place, which gets its first vote today. Marriage equality advocates oppose it because it creates second-class statuses for couples who can already access marriage; opponents say it still goes too far to recognize same-sex couples.
In New York, civil unions are not even on the table, but at least one senator, former Democrat Sen. Mark Grisanti (R), has suggested that he’s voting no on marriage because he thinks civil unions would be a better compromise:
If it were to come up to a vote today, I would vote ‘no’ because of the term ‘marriage’ being in there. Other groups had said to me that, you know, we don’t really care about the term ‘marriage’ as long as we have the 1,324 rights that we’re not allowed to have for married couples, and I agree that they should have those rights.
But perhaps Grisanti (and others?) are listening to decade-old talking points, because the big push for marriage equality is just that: a push for marriage.
In these two states, there is no selling point for “civil unions.” A compromise requires that both sides gain, and same-sex couples have nothing to gain from anything less than the marriages they can already have recognized. The only purpose civil unions would serve would be to designate same-sex couples as “less than” and undeserving of full marriage equality. For New York and Rhode Island, civil unions would be “separate and unequal.”