Recently, we heard the good news that France and Scotland are about to legalize same-sex marriage. Beyond the obvious lessons about the importance of this step, there is another significant lesson for the U.S. from these two countries' experience.
Both nations already recognize civil partnerships that confer all or most of the benefits of marriage, except the name. These civil partnerships provide an alternative to couples who want more certainty respecting the legal ramifications of their unions. But there is a big difference between their partnership systems. In Scotland, as in most other countries, the intent of establishing civil partnership was mainly to impede the legalization of same-sex marriage; civil partnership was restricted to same-sex couples. Hence, civil partnership in Scotland is a kind of "separate but equal" arrangement -- or marriage with a different name. In France, by contrast, civil partnership is open also to opposite-sex couples and provides a kind of registered cohabitation -- a flexible arrangement built on a contract determined by the couple and registered with the state. It has become extremely popular among heterosexual couples. Recently, for every three marriages, two civil partnerships were registered; and in the past ten years more than a million have been put on the books. In fact, the current prime minister, François Hollande, was once registered as the partner of Ségolène Royal, another French politician.
With Scotland's recent decision to legalize same-sex marriage, it may possibly remove the option of civil partnership, as Norway, Vermont, and Connecticut did. However, Scotland could decide to mimic France, which offers its citizens a menu of options for the legal recognition of relationships. No longer are the choices limited to marriage or informal cohabitation -- all or nothing. Rather, couples can choose to marry, or, instead, to register their partnerships with the state and gain the benefit of state and third-party recognition of their union while avoiding some of the obligations and loaded symbolic baggage that come with marriage.
Think about it this way: civil union -- or state registration -- could be the perfect solution for people in a trial cohabitation period, for the elderly who prefer to avoid a new marriage, and for those who want to eschew matrimony for whatever reason. What is more, the state could set up civil partnerships (as Belgium has, for instance) benefiting other dyadic relationships -- friends, relatives, or caregivers. Under this system, you could design your legal commitment to suit your relationship ties while avoiding awkward societal, familial, and legal hassles.
The U.S. government and the states continue to promote marriage is the best framework for relationships. The impact of the religious right on our political process not only affects same-sex couples, but blinds policymakers to the 7.6 million unmarried opposite-sex couples in the United States who live without rights or defined legal and financial obligations. Policymakers also ignore the growing elder-care crisis, in which millions of people -- both related and unrelated -- are living together because they cannot afford to buy in-home care or to move into assisted living or nursing homes.
Civil partnerships could emerge as the common-sense solution to a boatload of problems common to Western nations. Such an institution could address the state's need to regulate certain aspects of people's relationships in the interest of avoiding and mediating potential conflict, even while encouraging couples to think about and negotiate their rights early on in their relationships. Revolutionary? Or are Americans simply lagging behind?
There are some practical steps we can take to catch up. Civil partnerships are already open to opposite-sex couples in Illinois, Hawaii, and Nevada, but will be meaningful only when they are no longer understood as a way to prevent the legalization of same-sex marriage. They should be valued in their own right as something different from and more flexible than marriage, open to everyone. If a diverse range of couples starts to take advantage of these progressive state laws, we should begin to see the cultural shift that has happened in Europe. Legislators and couples in states that do not yet have civil unions should push for genuinely useful alternatives to marriage.
I anticipate that, in a decade, the tide will have turned. A new generation will see that marriage (or no marriage) for same-sex couples is not really the salient issue: the issue is the ability to establish for ourselves, no matter our sexual orientation, partnerships that are legally respected and financially and emotionally secure. Then we can rest assured that the people in whom we've entrusted our lives will be "allowed into the room" and, even more important, will be recognized during their life and after our death for their labor, their loyalty, and -- very often -- their love.
The views expressed in this post are those of the author and should not be attributed to the Center for Reproductive Rights.