My own interviews were even more revealing. The couples who agreed to chat had clearly spent some time thinking about the meaning of marriage, and decided they wanted nothing to do with it. In most other ways they were fairly mainstream—even Whitesel, 32, the most politically radical of the group, isn’t exactly throwing fireballs. A non-practicing lawyer, she teaches high school civics. Gates, 30, is a computer guy and comes from what he described as a conservative religious background. The civil union status, he said, “keeps me from falling into any preconditioned behavior that I might have picked up. Calling [Leah] my partner, not my wife, helps me not to have any assumptions” or buy into traditional patterns.
Both supported the rights of gays and lesbians to marry, and their civil union was meant to express solidarity with their friends who can’t.
Toward the end of the conversation, Whitesel revealed that she’s pregnant. The same revelation came during my discussion with Alex Rifman, 32, and Jennifer Tweeton, 35. Rifman is an engineer with AT&T, who was born in Moscow and emigrated with his family to the U.S. at age 9. Tweeton, like Whitesel, has a law degree and works for the Chicago Mercantile Exchange. The couple is raising the 15-year-old son of Tweeton’s from an early marriage.
Their civil union ceremony, Tweeton said, “taught everyone there something” about the law, and the couple see themselves as involved in a teaching mission in other ways, too: “I feel like we don’t value the families that choose to be families without being married. The civil union was a way to honor that … a way to demonstrate to others” that these other family structures deserve respect, too. And Rifman, like Whitesel and Gates, thought that the civil union choice expressed solidarity with his gay and lesbian friends: “Until marriage is an option for everyone, it shouldn’t be an option for us.”
Pioneer status has its costs, though; costs familiar to many same-sex couples, who will see their own experiences reflected in the stories these couples tell. Tweeton said that her family, traditional Lutherans, didn’t see her union as “real”; they don’t treat it like a marriage. And no one’s yet mustered the courage to come out about the civil union to Tweeton’s grandmother, who’s 100 years old and “very conservative.” Even the clerk who processed their application tried to dissuade them, urging that they “should just get married,” and reminding them that “the license cost was the same.” She also insisted that Alex, as the male, be “Partner A,” even though nothing in the civil union license form contains any such requirement.
Jeff Moyers, 44, and Melissa Mizwa, 32, had a similar experience with the judge who performed the ceremony. (“Wait a minute. A civil union? This can’t be right.”) Jeff, who described himself as “the world’s worst wine salesman,” said he objected to what he perceived as the built-in religious aspect of marriage, but added, that “if push came to shove, solidarity with gays is the biggest reason” for his choosing civil union status.
Civil unions, once seen as a way station between nonrecognition of gay and lesbian relationships and full marriage equality, may turn out to be more interesting than their origin in compromise might have predicted. In the case of same-sex couples, civil unions end up underscoring the point that committed gay and lesbian relationships are less than straight ones. As the Massachusetts Supreme Court stated in a 2004 opinion, calling gay and lesbian unions civil unions rather than marriage is a “considered choice of language that reflects a demonstrable assigning of same-sex, largely homosexual, couples to second-class status.”
And now opposite-sex couples in Illinois (and soon Hawaii, where a similar law went into effect on Sunday) who choose civil union are furthering the project of marriage deconstruction. For now, their numbers will probably remain small. But their impact could be much greater, by expanding the already lively national conversation about what marriage really means and whether it’s something we need to be fighting to preserve.