Forget Marriage—Civil Unions For All

Terry J. Allen

I believe fervently in the sanctity of marriage, and if you do, too, head immediately to your closest church, mosque, synagogue or flying spaghetti monster chapel, and sign up to procreate, cohabitate and copulate with a sex partner blessed by that holy institution.

The state's job, then, would be to assign benefits, if any, to couples, but not to define who can enter into coupledom.

But pass city hall and do not collect $200 in tax breaks. In fact, given the intrinsic rewards of sanctity, it’s pretty greedy to demand any secular perks from the state. Eternal life at the feet of the old white guy and his hench-angels should be prize enough.

Making your marriage sacred should be between you and your goddy thing.

Making your union legal, on the other hand, should be between you and state-guaranteed legal and human rights. And it should be available to any two people, gay or straight, in whatever configuration: Mother and son, grandparent and grandkid, mother and daughter, and best friends should all be able to form legal couples that enjoy the rights, privileges, financial benefits and responsibilities now assigned to marriage. (Calm down Rev. Rick: Only two people, no pets allowed.) 

America’s current marriage system, even when it includes same-sex couples, inherently discriminates against millions of people who are not in a sexual relationship. (That many legal marriages are platonic only adds irony to injustice.) Ensuring equal rights for all requires relegating or elevating (however you look at it) marriage to the realm of religion. Kind of like christenings, bar mitzvahs and chicken sacrifice.

The state’s job, then, would be to assign benefits, if any, to couples, but not to define who can enter into coupledom. There is no rational, as opposed to religious, reason why any two people shouldn’t be able to form a civil union that carries the same rights as marriage: to pass on and inherit property, make decisions for the sick, visit inmates and get discounts on Carnival cruises. 

Without the religious framework, joining civil, secular rights to heterosexual or even gay coupledom becomes bizarre. Think about it: To enjoy the tax and other benefits of marriage (or its gay stepchild, current civil unions), a couple is assumed to have consummated the deal with sex – with each other. 

But why shouldn’t any practical or loving couple be able to form a unit and consummate it with anything they choose? A night at the opera, a day at the races, a signature on a will?

Irrational fear and religion (but I repeat myself) underlie the state’s stance that it can assign secular rights to a sacred institution designed for sexual partners – and can exclude platonic couples. But really, would the legal right to shared Social Security benefits so excite two heterosexual women that they would turn lesbian? Would allowing two brothers to share medical benefits inspire them to acts of incest? 

Or would, God forbid, too many people get health benefits and share incomes and resources? 

Tradition is another bulwark against change. But even traditions that appear carved in stone or mandated by God evolve over time like Darwin’s finches. Traditional” marriage used to be a business contract between families. It legitimized procreative sex and formalized property and inheritance. It was often polygamous and included child spouses. Men’s conjugal rights included rape and the rule of thumb – the right to beat a wife with a stick no thicker than his thumb. 

Gradually, many societies embraced an ideal of romantic love that undermined arranged marriages, while women’s increasing legal, sexual and financial independence undercut marriage as society’s mechanism of choice for promoting the lawful and peaceful transition of property.

Today, people – including women – can leave their property to whomever they wish, and they can rely on DNA tests rather than the friable sanctity of marriage if they wish to base their decisions on bloodlines. But they still cannot define the most legally significant relationships of their lives.

Rather than simply fighting the Religious Right’s campaign to stop gay marriage and weaken the church-state divide, progressives could take a more radical approach. Gay and straight, they could demand an unbridgeable chasm between state and mate.

If you want a sanctified marriage, exchange vows at a religious institution that accepts you. Heaven and sanctified sex await.

But if you want that bond to be legal, wait in line at city hall with the farmer and his son, the grandmother and orphaned grandchild, the elderly widows, all of whom deserve better healthcare, joint property, fuss-free inheritance and the right to form a secular, civilized union.

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Terry J. Allen is a veteran investigative reporter/​editor who has covered local and international politics and health and science issues. Her work has appeared in the Guardian, Boston Globe, Times Argus, Harper’s, the Nation​.com, Salon​.com, and New Scientist . She has been an editor at Amnesty International, In These Times , and Cor​p​watch​.com. She is also a photographer. Her portraits of people sitting in some of the 1900 cars lined up outside a Newport, Vt., food drop can be seen on www​.flickr​.com/​p​h​o​t​o​s​/​t​e​r​r​y​a​l​l​e​n​/​a​lbums. Terry can be contacted at tallen@​igc.​org or through www​.ter​ry​jallen​.com.
Illustrated cover of Gaza issue. Illustration shows an illustrated representation of Gaza, sohwing crowded buildings surrounded by a wall on three sides. Above the buildings is the sun, with light shining down. Above the sun is a white bird. Text below the city says: All Eyes on Gaza
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