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Civil Unions vs. Marriage: Separate And Not Equal

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Meghan Streit
Meghan Streit

I have a 40-pound ivory tulle ball gown hanging in my dressing room waiting to be cleaned and preserved. My dining room looks like a Crate & Barrel outlet, with gift boxes stacked in every corner. I have a shiny new diamond eternity band on my left hand. I'm still sunburned from the 12 days I recently spent relaxing in the Caribbean with my lover. If you didn't know better, you'd think I just got married.

But, I didn't -- at least not in the eyes of the Illinois government. I'm gay, so the best I could do was get a civil union. I could spend all the money I wanted on a fancy wedding - a three-course meal for my 160 guests, $400 designer shoes that I just had to have, the perfect shade of pale pink roses -- and I did. But, sadly, no amount of money could buy me equality in the state where I live.

My now-wife and I waited as long as we could to get our civil union license, hoping against hope that the Illinois legislature would legalize same-sex marriage before our wedding. A few days before our January 26 ceremony, we finally accepted the fact that gay marriage would not be the law of the land on our wedding day. So, we bundled up and headed downtown to the Cook County Bureau of Vital Records to get a civil union license.

That day was so bittersweet. On one hand, it was exciting to formalize our commitment to each other in a way we'd been planning for the last 15 months. It was fun to sign on the dotted line and claim responsibility for one another. But, at the same time, being relegated to civil union status instead of being allowed to get a marriage license (like the ones all of my straight friends have) felt, for lack of a better word, gross.

In our day-to-day life, being gay is nearly a non-issue for my wife and me. We can safely walk down any street in Chicago holding hands. Our families both embrace our relationship and are excited for grandkids. We have a vibrant social circle that includes straight, gay and bisexual people who all have a great time together. I am fortunate that in the world I inhabit, being gay is kind of old news. As a result, I spend most of my days feeling astonishingly normal. I don't think of my relationship as different from or less than my straight friends' marriages -- and neither does anyone else who I know.

So, when my then-fiancée and I took the escalator down to the Vital Records office on that cold January afternoon, it felt like we had traveled back in time to 1952, when separate-but-equal was perfectly acceptable. I got a knot in my stomach while we waited in line. My eyes darted around the room, looking at the different signs with information about marriage and civil union licenses. The simple fact that there are two different options and that one of them is not available to gay people sends a subtle but clear message: You are different and you don't deserve the same treatment as the majority.

In my head, I was secretly plotting some sort of protest. I am not the kind of girl who sits in the back of the bus or goes down without a fight. My fiancée knows it, too. She looked at me, silently pleading for me not to make a scene.

When we got up to the desk, we were greeted by a tired-looking African American woman who appeared to be in her mid-50s. I said, "We're getting married, but we're gay, so I guess we have to get a civil union license." That was my silently-negotiated compromise with my fiancée: I didn't want to get arrested and spend my wedding day in jail, but there was no way I was leaving that office without making at least one political remark.

The lady behind the desk responded with the unique brand of irritated ambivalence that only government workers can muster: "Driver's license and date of birth." We came prepared with every piece of documentation we might need and handed it over to her. As the Vital Records lady clicked away at her computer and asked us a series of basic questions like our parents' names and where we were born, she looked up at us over her glasses and said: "You know you have to have a ceremony for this to be official, right?"

She was talking to a girl who had visited 12 venues before choosing the perfect one for her wedding, who tried on 28 wedding gowns, who was forcing her five best friends to wear matching pink dresses as bridesmaids, who sent out miniature snow globes as save-the-dates. I had micromanaged every detail of this wedding down to the pale pink welcome cocktail guests would receive when they arrived and the exact tempo at which the string quartet would play as I walked down the aisle. I wanted to shout at this poor woman about the hours I spent choosing passed hors d'oeuvres and the number of bridal magazines I'd read cover to cover. "Do I look like the kind of girl who gets married without a wedding???" is what I wanted to scream at her.

Instead, I just glared and said through clenched teeth, "Oh yes, there will be a ceremony."

My anger, while misdirected at a government employee, was valid. I shouldn't have had to suffer the indignity of separate-but-equal treatment. Not in a blue state in 2013. We all know that separate but equal means not equal, and it's a shame that history lesson is lost on so many people.

It stung a little bit to bring a civil union license rather than an honest-to-goodness marriage license to my wedding. But, my wedding was an elegant evening filled with delicious food, good champagne, stunning flowers, soft lighting and beautiful music from a live band. It was a night I know my family and friends will remember forever. When I woke up on January 27, groggy from dancing into the wee hours, with my one true love asleep next to me, I felt married - not civil unioned, not domestic partnered - married.

As I write this, the Illinois Senate just passed a bill to legalize same-sex marriage. I am hopeful and confident the Illinois House will follow suit and that Governor Quinn will sign that bill into law in very short order. For my sake, I wish they had passed the bill a month ago, but I will graciously accept the Valentine's Day gift the legislature has given to the LGBT community in Illinois.

I am married in my heart, and no government can take that away from me, but I sincerely hope that my wife and I are one of the last couples to be treated, however politely, like second-class citizens at the Cook County Bureau of Vital Records. I look forward to the day when two gay people in love can just stroll into that Washington St. basement office and ask for a plain old marriage license - not separate, just equal.

Below, a photo of Meghan and her wife, Shira Kollins, on their Big Day.
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