Are States that Experiment With Opposite-Sex Civil Unions Offering a Way to Opt Out of Oppressive Ideas About Marriage?

The law, lawyers, and the court.
Jan. 3 2012 1:41 PM

No to Nuptials

Will opposite-sex civil unions spell the end of traditional marriage?

Wedding bands.
Are straight couples destroying traditional marriage?

Photograph by Andranik Makaryan/Hemera.

While it’s true that marriage is in serious trouble in the United States, it’s not because of the gay and lesbian couples seeking to achieve it. If my own research telegraphs future marriage trends, the real peril may come from an increasing number of straight folks who have had their fill of traditional marriage. Instead of fretting about how gay couples are redefining marriage, maybe we should start talking about why straight couples are rejecting it.

At least that’s the conclusion I’m reaching in considering the fallout from Illinois’ first-in-the-nation experiment with civil unions for opposite-sex couples, which went into effect June 1 of last year. When asked during a long Skype interview why she and her partner, Justin Gates, chose to enter a civil union rather than marry, Leah Whitesel, who identifies as queer despite her current relationship, framed the question this way: “Gay marriage doesn’t seem like the right discussion to me. Because it should be: ‘What is this institution of marriage and does it still need to be defined the way it has been?’ ” For Whitesel and Gates, the answer is no.

Many of the other straight civil union pioneers have also said no to marriage—for themselves and as an institution. The evidence is in a report that the Cook County Clerk’s Office recently issued on the nation’s first opposite-sex couples who civilly united. It found dissatisfaction with the institution of marriage because of concerns with its historical assignment of roles, its connection to religion, and its unfairness to gay and lesbian couples. My own interviews with some of these same couples, who have rejected marriage and plunged into the shallower, murkier pool of the civil union, reflect a cohort prepared to take the wrecking ball to marriage itself.

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To be sure, the numbers of people entering opposite-sex civil unions in Illinois still represents a very small share of the total. As of Dec. 29, 2011, only 148 of the 1,993 civil union licenses had gone to opposite-sex couples. That’s not surprising, because—as is the case in the other states that have recognized civil unions—the Illinois measure was primarily intended to grant same-sex couples the benefits of marriage without the name. The law can’t achieve equality for them, so there’s very little about these clever creatures of compromise to attract opposite-sex couples. Civil unions aren’t recognized on the federal level, and hardly anyone understands what they are in the first place. For many same-sex couples, a civil-union law is much better than nothing. The expectation was that for opposite-sex couples, it would still be worse than the alternative. That’s why most states haven’t bothered extending the option to straight couples. And why it’s striking that some straight couples in Illinois have nevertheless opted in.

Those 148 couples might portend something big. The clerk’s office was able to survey one partner from more than half (46 of 87) of the opposite-sex couples who had civilly united as of Sept. 19. And their reasons for entering into civil unions rather than marriage should worry marriage traditionalists. For instance, by more than three-to-one, respondents cited “personal or religious convictions against marriage” as a reason for choosing the civil union. And when asked an open-ended question—“Why did you decide to obtain a civil union instead of getting married?” the most frequently proffered response fell into the political/ideological category. The report provides a few specifics behind that political objection to marriage, including statements of “solidarity with the gay community and/or support of equality, fairness, and inclusiveness.” Some respondents cited commitment/label issues, which included those who did not want a “husband” or a “wife,” or even the “marriage” label itself. And 9 percent of respondents cited religious issues. (Even though religion need not be a part of a marriage ceremony, for many the two are inextricably linked).

Almost half the respondents’ objections are loosely about their perceived objections to the institution of marriage. And only four of the 46 admitted choosing civil union status in order to preserve social security or other benefits from a previous spouse that would be lost through remarriage—but not through entering into a civil union, which isn’t federally recognized.

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