The Curious Logic on Civil Unions


Here in Minnesota, a bill legalizing same-sex marriage was introduced earlier this year.  This comes on the heels of the defeat of an amendment to ban same sex marriage in November.  The bill has cleared both committees and will head to the House and Senate floors.

This week a Republican House member introduced a bill allowing civil unions instead of marriage.  The main sponsor is state Representative Tim Kelly, who happened to be one of four Republicans that opposed allowing the marriage amendment from going to the voters when it came to the House in the spring of 2011.

Kelly’s proposal was denounced by several of the states gay groups as well as the sponsors of the same-sex marriage bill.  The common complaint is that civil unions are nothing more than “separate but equal,” creating a second-class system for gay couples.

The reference of separate but equal is on purpose, to liken civil unions to the way African Americans were treated during the Jim Crow era in the south.

I’ve become more wary of trying to tie the movement for same sex marriage on equal terms with the Civil Rights movement.  It’s not that the drive for same-sex marriage isn’t a civil rights issue, it is, but it isn’t on the same footing of how African Americans were treated.

In listening to the stories my Dad and other relatives on his side of the family, I’ve learned how bad segregation was.  Most of my relatives come from central Louisiana and life in the early to mid 2oth century was not good for African Americans.  Separate but equal meant not having a place to eat or lay your head after a long drive.  It meant poor schools and crappy hospitals.  Segregation wasn’t just an inconvenience, it was something that altered lives.

Civil Unions might be a poor alternative to marriage, but it is not the same as living under Jim Crow.  Not by a longshot.

The other thing that bothers me about the “separate by equal” charge is how inconsistent it is.  A few weeks ago, we heard about civil unions become law in Colorado.  There was a lot of positive talk about how far the state had come from the days of the early 90s when the state passed a law that allowed for discrimination of gays and lesbians.  No one was condemning the state for opting for an alternative to marriage; instead we had pictures of same sex couples kissing each other.

This is all good, but if separate but equal is bad in Minnesota, why is it good in Colorado?  Segregation wasn’t bad in Mississippi, but okay in Georgia.  It was bad all over.  If you are going to use the rhetoric of a system that not only separated African Americans from whites, but also kept them down economically, then use it consistently.  If it’s wrong it’s wrong; it isn’t wrong in this situation but right or feasible in this one.

We can argue if full-out marriage or civil unions are the right tactic.  Maybe now is the time for equal marriage, maybe not.  But these are discussions about tactics and politics, not morality.  If it was about morality, there would be no talk of civil unions as an option anywhere at anytime.

Let’s talk about Kelly’s bill.  Let’s talk about whether this is right bill for the times.  But please don’t employ rhetoric to hide your political concerns.  It insults the horrors that African Americans endured and it doesn’t help the cause of gay marriage either.

2 thoughts on “The Curious Logic on Civil Unions

  1. Bruce R. Gilson

    I used to favor civil unions because I felt the rights were more important than the language. If a couple could have all the rights of a married couple, who cares what they call it officially? And I felt thatby using a different name, you could get around the objections of people who say “you’re redefining marriage — it’s been a man and a woman for millennia.” That way progress could be made faster.

    But what changed my mind was seeing that even civil unions generated opposition from the Religious Right, and in Virginia they passed a law that, in the breadth of its language, would possibly it has not been tested in this regard) ban even certain business contracts! Since the rationale for having two different names was to soothe the ruffled feathers of “traditional marriage” advocates, and it didn’t do so, I now think you might as well go all the way and extend marriage rights to all couples. I still see it as a step forward, however, to institute civil unions — this led the way to full marriage in Vermont, for example — when the choice is between nothing at all and civil unions.

  2. Susan

    I’ve always been for marriage equality, but have felt squeamish about drawing a hard parallel between civil unions and Jim Crow laws. Yes, both are civil rights issues, but that’s where I stop.

    Thanks for your post. Great reading as usual.


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