12/03/2010 01:01 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Illinois Civil Unions Could Be Helpful For Some Heterosexual Couples, Too

When State Senator Dave Koehler, a sponsor of the recently-passed bill allowing civil unions in Illinois, took the floor to defend it on Wednesday, he said, "Let me tell you what this bill isn't: it is not gay marriage."

Many opponents saw that as mere semantics, arguing that a civil union was a marriage in everything but name.

But it turns out civil unions don't only bypass the "marriage" part of gay marriage -- they're also not necessarily for gay couples only.

As Rep. Greg Harris, the highest-ranking openly gay elected official in Illinois, said in his floor speech, a civil union could benefit a great many senior citizens as well, gay or straight.

The Illinois Review, which live-blogged the floor debate, wrote that Harris argued on behalf of widowed senior citizens, who "would stand to lose their pension benefits and Social Security benefits if they married. The civil union would allow them to continue to receive pensions, but also be allowed to hospital rooms and to share nursing home rooms," he reportedly pointed out.

This sneaky fact of civil unions is true precisely because they're not marriages. Civil unions don't provide couples with any of the federal-level rights that marriages do -- like the ability to file joint tax returns -- but they do give couples state-level rights, like visitation and health-care coverage.

As a result, if a heterosexual widow got a civil union, she would still be able to share a room at the nursing home with her partner (a state privilege) while not forfeiting survivor's benefits from Social Security (a federal one).

Proponents like Harris saw this as an important fringe benefit of civil unions; detractors felt otherwise. As the Illinois Review later editorialized, "Harris' comments could be interpreted as publicly advocating that widowed senior citizens use civil unions to scam the federal Social Security system."

Meanwhile, the Chicago Tribune writes of other types of straight couples who might be inclined to get a civil union:

Andrew Koppelman, a professor of law and political science at Northwestern University, said civil unions also provide straight couples with an option that gives them legal support but doesn't carry the title of "marriage."

"There are some who think marriage is an anachronistic and patriarchal institution," he said. "It's got this administrative dimension, which provides for hospital visitation rights and inheritance rights and that sort of thing, and then also it includes this symbolic status. Well, there are some people who like the symbolic status and some people who don't."

Courtney Greve, spokeswoman for Cook County Clerk David Orr, said the clerk's office gets weekly calls from heterosexual couples who don't want to marry but are interested in some sort of domestic partnership. Some, she said, are young couples facing a loss of health insurance, who want to wait to get married until they can plan a more elaborate wedding.

If, as is widely expected, Gov. Quinn signs the civil unions bill into law, they will begin in June of 2011. There's no doubt that many gay couples will be lining up at City Hall to have their partnerships affirmed, but it remains to be seen how many straight ones will be there with them.