Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Would not a marriage by any other name be as sweet?

From the Volokh Conspiracy's Dale Carpenter comes this story from the New York Times about the growing dissatisfaction among gay couples with civil unions in New Jersey. (The Times story is here for those who are curious.)

Personally, I think this spells bad news for the short term success of the gay marriage movement. First and foremost, gay marriage needs to be about legal rights and legal equality, not social acceptance. And the refusal to embrace civil unions can, somewhat fairly I might add, be seen as legitimatizing the point of view that gay marriage isn't really about legal rights in the first place. To be fair, the Times article cites to some of the problems with the existing civil union law in New Jersey.

Steven Goldstein, head of Garden State Equality, a leading New Jersey gay advocacy group, and David S. Buckel, senior counsel at Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, said they were aware of more than 20 couples who had obtained civil unions but said they were nonetheless denied rights afforded to married couples. None have yet led to a lawsuit challenging civil unions.

Of course, the fact that prejudice and discrimination still exist should not lead to a boycotting of civil unions. The same discrimination could occur just as easily should gay marriage be passed. Maybe the name "civil union" implies second class citizenship, but it's an institution that imparts rights on par with that of marriage. Pursuit of gay rights and gay marriage stands strongest when it's about individual rights and legal rights- it becomes much more messy when we get into issues of social acceptance.

The fact of the matter is, the push for civil unions and the push for gay marriage should be about equal legal rights for same sex couples. If same sex couples find that the taint of civil unions outweigh the legal benefits of the institution, they're doing themselves (and all of the rest of us who care about equal rights) a disservice.

2 Comments:

Blogger A Fan For All Seasons said...

Do you think the civil rights movement was purely about legal rights or do you think it was more about social acceptance? Do you think blacks would've been happy with a law saying they could eat at the same places as whites but they had to eat on the ground, or they could sit anywhere on a bus, but not next to white people? What about a law allowing blacks the right to vote, but they couldn't serve in office?

Obviously it's not the same thing, but it's the same idea. Social acceptance goes hand in hand with civil rights. With Jim Crow laws, you could say all you want that blacks and whites were "separate but equal", but everyone knows that wasn't true. When you give gays the right to civil union, but not marriage, maybe legally it's the same thing, but there's still an implication that they're different or wrong.

If America is ready, let there be gay marriage, but gays shouldn't be patronized like this. Civil unions aren't the same thing as marriage. Sure you can say if a gay couple really loves each other then it doesn't matter, and that may be fine for an individual couple. As a group, however, not only is it unfair, it's just not right.

Now, for anyone who has seen my previos posts or know my political beliefs, this is a far cry from my norm. Regardless of what I may personally believe about this issue, there is no definitive proof that gays are different. By that I don't mean sexual orientation, obviously that's different. What I mean is, there is no proof that gays can't function in society or that it's a mental disorder. If proof like this were to come forward, and I mean definitive proof, than anti-gay marriage people have a case. Until then, however, we legally cannot deny fellow Americans the right to marry just because of their orientation.

4:25 AM  
Blogger QU 3L said...

I'm glad you point out the civil rights movement because it makes for an interesting comparison. Remember that the notion of social acceptance is quite different from specific legal rights. The biggest problem with seperate but equal was that it was not in fact equal. As you point out, under the supposedly equal treatment of the Jim Crow south, blacks were second class citizens.

Now, this unequal treatment in spite of the law obviously stemmed from social acceptance of the notion of blacks as second class citizens. But compare this with marriage versus civil unions. Legally, they are the same institutions with the same rights. Those who refuse to accept civil unions do so because of their refusal to accept homosexuality- calling it gay marriage isn't going to change the minds of those who are allready anti-gay.

My point is to highlight the fact that social norms are not changed by law. Just go back to the civil rights movement. We tend to focus on the south, but the truth was, blacks were treated as second class citizens in the north as well- they were treated as second class citizens despite the fact that there was no Jim Crow and there was no legal segregation.

Attitudes about race changed because people became more enlightened, and, well, their attitudes about race changed. It wasn't because of civil rights laws. Laws reflected changing attitudes, not the other way around. And in fact, as we know from our history, the changes in laws sparked extreme responses on the part of segregationists.

I think the idea of forcing social acceptance of previously unaccepted differences through the mechanism of law is a mistake. Now, I don't beleive that gay marriage does force social acceptance, but stories like the one I cited to makes me fear that the push for gay marriage will be recieved that way by the anti-gay community.

As I said before, the same people who see civil unions as "something less than marriage" are going to feel the same way about gay marriage. We should take all the legal steps we can take, but always keep in mind that we can't change people's beliefs over night.

10:28 AM  

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