We anxiously await the Supreme Court decision on two cases related to gay marriage. There is good potential for SCOTUS to strike down DOMA, the Defense of Marriage Act, signed into law by Bill Clinton. This would open up federal marriage benefits to individuals married in states where same-sex marriage is legal. While many want the gay marriage fight to be state by state, we need to remember that there are federal benefits for married couples that elude gay couples who are legally married all because of DOMA. If DOMA is struck down, there is one sure of victim of this victory: Civil Unions.
Civil Unions and Domestic Partnerships were an attempt to provide some legal recognition to same-sex couples while not allowing the usage of the word "marriage" to describe the relationship. This created a "separate, but equal" status for same-sex couples. This model was endorsed by some conservatives, even fiercely anti-gay marriage proponent President George W. Bush, as a kind of compromise that often offered the same exact benefits that straight married couples receive at the state level. Since DOMA prevented every gay couples from the federal benefits of marriage, whether legally married or in a civil union, the argument was that civil unions were a balanced compromise.
My partner and I decided to have a civil union in our home state of New Jersey because our financial advisor put the benefits and protections in front of us on paper and we could not deny that it was a protection for us at the state level and with any potential inheritance fights that could occur when one of us dies. But, something about it has always bugged me. While I am no longer a religious person, the word marriage has more transcendence to it while the notion of a civil union seems transactional.
There are moments when this is clearer to me. For instance, whenever you go to a hospital or doctor's office and fill out the many forms they give you, they ask for personal information that includes your marriage status. The options are single, divorced, married, widowed. I have never seen an option for a civil union. I make a point to let the person at the desk know that my legal relationship is not recognized on the form. They often ask, "well isn't it marriage?" And, I answer, "not according to the law of our state." After some complaints, Facebook added civil unions and domestic partnerships to its profile page. In the end, civil unions take care of the legal aspect of your partnership. But, they don't help you manage the societal aspect of your partnership. This is why marriage matters.
When my partner and I had our ceremony, we decided to downplay it. We had a surprise ceremony inviting about 10 friends for a dinner at our house. The mayor showed up, we announced our civil union, and the ceremony began. It was a very happy evening with a lot of joy. We joke that we became "civilized" or "unionized." In humor is truth, we are not married. And, knowing that our relationship is not the same as our straight friends just seems unfair. I feel that sense of injustice every single time I say to someone that we are in a civil union. It never leaves the conversation about our relationship. The law removes the joy.
Politicians who like the "separate, but equal" compromise will no longer have that option if DOMA is struck down. Why? Because, now they will be the ones who block their state's residents from receiving federal benefits. They will be the ones who do harm to their constituents; they won't be able to blame DOMA anymore.