07/29/2009 10:41 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

What Is Lost When We Settle for Civil Unions

[photo by Kimberly Bednarski, KB Image Photography]

In the marriage debate, the focus is always on rights, those granted federally and by each state: immigration, taxation, hospital visitation. It's a way to talk about inequality concretely so that those around us can understand what all the fuss is about.

I used to think that was sufficient. Then I got married.

Last weekend, a slew of family and friends descended upon Chicago to celebrate my relationship with my partner of five years. My mother, a judge in Canada, performed the ceremony and we exchanged rings and vows. But, the wedding wasn't legal. It didn't change the fact that, in the eyes of the state, my partner and I were roommates.

I never grew up thinking that marriage was something essential or important. My parents have been together over 35 years, happily, without ever being married. It seemed like nothing more than an invented occasion.

What I couldn't have understood until I was standing in front of an audience about to say my vows is that ceremony can be incredibly important. Participating in the rites of passage society expects and supports holds meaning on its own. The simple fact that the marriage pronouncement was not part of our script, couldn't be part of our script, created a deep sense of hurt and exclusion. It was an injustice, separate and apart from the rights we do not enjoy and legal discrimination we suffer. Our status as outsiders was reinforced, even as we were surrounded by so many close friends.

In many ways, LGBT people in the United States are luckier than most. Our relationships, themselves are not illegal. Many of us have supportive families and friends. And some of us live in states that recognize same-sex relationships.

Still, we cannot underestimate the damage marriage inequality causes. LGBT people are excluded from social institutions that hold real significance in our lives. We look at pictures of our family members on their wedding day. We watch television shows about weddings, see our favorite sitcom actors and movie actors go through the ceremony, wait for the moment where the couple are pronounced legally wed and embrace and kiss.

I didn't get to do that in front of the people I love. And, although my wedding was the best day of my life, it was incomplete.

That is a loss no civil union and no domestic partnership can undo.