To address the practical legal problems faced by unmarried same-sex partners, some people advocate civil unions.
(“Civil union” is a generic term that includes a registered partnership, a civil partnership, and all other formally-recognised personal union).
However, civil unions do not offer the same legal benefits as marriage, even when the law says they should. This is because they are not as widely understood or respected. Several recent reports into the operation of civil schemes in Europe and North America confirm that civil unions are not always recognised by hospitals, schools, insurers and even government officials.
Lack of recognition is also a problem when civil union partners travel inter-state or internationally. But even if a solution can be found to these practical problems, legal unions other than marriage do not give same-sex couples the same social and cultural recognition that comes with marriage. In the words of American marriage equality advocate, Beth Robinson, “nobody writes songs about civil unions”.
Worse, according to the reports mentioned above civil unions may actually encourage discrimination against same-sex partners and downgrade the status of their relationships by entrenching a second-class status .
Civil rights historians like Barbara Cox have drawn the parallel between civil unions and former “Jim Crow laws” in the American south.
“…restricting same-sex couples to civil unions is reminiscent of the racism that relegated African-Americans to separate railroad cars and separate schools. Our society’s experiences with ‘separate and equal’ have shown that separation can never result in equality because the separation is based on a belief that a distance needs to be maintained between those in the privileged position and those placed in the inferior position.”
Civil unions have not only not fulfilled their promise of equal rights and respect for same-sex couples, they appear to have made matters worse. Instead of eliminating discrimination they have entrenched it. Instead of removing stigma they have inflamed it. Instead of being a step towards full equality they are a step away.
This is probably why same-sex couples consistently show they prefer marriage to other forms of legal recognition. In US states where both marriage and civil unions are available to same-sex couples the result is always a higher take-up rate for marriage.[xi]
This is consistent with Australian research which shows that only 25.6% of same-sex de facto partners would chose to be in a civil union, and only 17.7% would remain as de factos. Of those currently in a state same-sex civil union 78.3% would prefer to be married under Australian law.
Alternatives to marriage are important for providing legal security and/or formal recognition for those partners who do not wish to marry. In Australia we are lucky to have strong legal protections for cohabiting de facto couples and some of the best state civil union schemes in the world. But there is one piece missing from the jigsaw of legal options available to Australian couples. That piece is marriage for same-sex partners.
[xi] “Marriage, registration and dissolution by same-sex couples in the U.S.”, The Williams Institute, July 2008, http://williamsinstitute.law.ucla.edu/research/marriage-and-couples-rights/marriage-registration-and-dissolution-by-same-sex-couples-in-the-u-s/
Posted in: 12 reasons why marriage equality matters