What are the differences between marriage and civil unions?
May 19, 2004 11:08 PM   Subscribe

With all of this talk about Gay Marriage in the media, I was examining to myself why, beyond romantic reasons, Marriage is desirable. I know many conservatives say that civil unions are as far as gays should be allowed to go, but what are the differences between civil unions and marriage? I heard on the Simpsons (a reliable source) that a man can not testify in court against his wife, would this be true for those in a civil union as well?
posted by whoshotwho to Law & Government (16 answers total)
There are a number of reasons:

* Social. Marriage is society's way of acknowledging that two people are together. Forever. A civil union implies that same sex couples don't have that same level of committment, love, or devotion.

* Legal. In 1997, the General Accounting Office of the Federal Government compiled a list of 1,049 rights and benefits which were related to civil marriage. Unions might not have the same benefits.

Hey, a big list right here.
posted by gramcracker at 11:43 PM on May 19, 2004

"Unions" are yet to be defined, legally, so pick your poison in terms of what liberties/freedoms/respects they'll lack in the eyes of the law.
posted by scarabic at 1:33 AM on May 20, 2004

See also this similar question.
posted by blue mustard at 2:59 AM on May 20, 2004

Civil unions only matter in the state they're allowed in, and don't cover the couple out-of-state, whether traveling or moving into, nor cover the couple in regards to any of the tons of federal benefits and rights. They're a half-assed response which will go away unless made federal (as France did with PACS)
posted by amberglow at 7:49 AM on May 20, 2004

it can sometimes play against you. i work with a bunch of americans in a compound in chile. they get paid a lot more than me because i'm a local hire - a chilean, effectively - and they're foreign hires who need to be compensated for living here. anyways, getting to the point, i have a normal job under chilean law while they have a quasi-diplomatic status. so you might think they're on a much better deal. however, their spouses are also covered under the deal - they get visas to live here, etc, but they can't work (or be involved in politics, or blah blah blah). this tends to be a bad thing, because working is the best way by far to become integrated into the local community. if they were unmarried then they'd have to sort out their own visas, but they'd be able to get a job here and lead a much more "normal" life (getting a visa if you're a gringo is pretty much guaranteed).

similarly, we are not married, although pauli is chilean. this meant hassle for me, getting a permanent visa, but now that i have one, i am not constrained in any way. if i'd come here as a husband, i might not have been able to get a work visa, or, if we were ever divorced, might face losing my job and being deported.

independence is good.
posted by andrew cooke at 7:51 AM on May 20, 2004

Besides all the legal stuff, marriage is an important symbol for many people. It doesn't symbolize exactly the same thing to everyone, the way the letter A does, but most people (to whom it resonates) get associations within a similar orbit: commitment, fidelity, love, etc.

Since symbols are artificial constructs, they will never be potent for all people, so there will always be people who say, "marriage is unimportant." They are not wrong. Nor are those people wrong who say, "marriage is vital!." Similarly, a cross may be a very potent symbol to a Christian but not to a Jew.

The reason that so many people find marriage to be a potent symbols is because (a) most people like to pair bond (probably for reasons of genetic programming) and (b) marriage is the major symbol most cultures use to signify pair-bonding.

On a personal level, I used to be one of those people who said, "I don't see why ceremonies and rings and all that are important. Me and my significant other will be exactly the same whether we marry or not."

Then I got married, and it was HUGELY meaningful to me. As is my wedding ring. As is saying, "my wife." At first this made me feel stupid. I've been duped by society. Then I realized that we're all duped by society -- those of us who live in society. Which is just a negative way of saying that it's pretty hard (and unnatural) to live in a culture without sharing symbols with others of that same culture.

Much is made about the legalities, and they are important, but I think the main issues here are emotional (for most people). Gays want to get married because -- having grown up in a culture -- the marriage symbol is just as potent to them as it is for straights.

(Some) straights (and even some gays) want to lock gays out of marriage because allowing them to get married would alter the marriage symbol (which traditionally symbolizes the union of a man and a woman). Some fear this would diminish the potency of the symbol: i.e. it would cheapen their feelings about their own marriages or marriages in general.

I'm very pro-gay marriage, but I think it's vital that we acknowledge the feelings of the anti people. And if we understand how powerful the marriage symbol is, we can see how it's possible to be against gay marriages without being homophobic in general.

Just as it's possible to hate rap music without being racist.
posted by grumblebee at 9:33 AM on May 20, 2004

that a man can not testify in court against his wife

Just to clarify, people cannot be compelled to testify against their spouses in court. If they want to, they're free to do so. IANAL. No idea whether this would apply to civil unions.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 9:35 AM on May 20, 2004

And if we understand how powerful the marriage symbol is, we can see how it's possible to be against gay marriages without being homophobic in general.

i followed you all the way to that point. then it was like running into a brick wall. what are you trying to say? that someone can be ok with homosexuals but be offended when they marry? eh?

it seems to me that the best you can see is that marriage is an intensifier - something like dennett's "intuition pumps" - it helps focus on a particular issue. so you can use people's reactions to gay marriage as a sensitive detector for whether they're homophobic or not... which isn't quite the same thing, at all.

(also, on the duped or not thing - it's all a matter of degree. how do you feel about advertising, for example? do you buy expensive cars because the ads tell you you'll feel good, feel guilty, then think "nah, it's just society"? where do you draw the line? is it more important to draw the line on important things (like how you live your life with tyour partner) or unimportant ones (like whether you buy a silly luxury every now and then)?)
posted by andrew cooke at 9:48 AM on May 20, 2004

it's possible to be against gay marriages without being homophobic in general.

Just as it's possible to hate rap music without being racist.

Not to derail (the question seems to have be adequately answered), but your analogy is falsely drawn; you liking or disliking rap music is a purely personal choice. It is akin to you saying, "Marriage? Pfaw! It's prison! Marriage is not for me."

While you could easily hate rap without being a rascist, I would be awfully suspicious of your intentions if you tried to legislate that only blacks could listen to rap (or that only whites could listen to Mozart).

Defend the sanctity of Mozart!
posted by rafter at 11:03 AM on May 20, 2004

No idea whether this would apply to civil unions.

Just to clarify, people who are civilly unified CAN be compelled to testify against their partner in a court in any other state [or at a federal level] that isn't Vermont.
posted by jessamyn at 11:14 AM on May 20, 2004

Rosie O'Donnell's partner was compelled to testify against her in her recent court case against G&J, for one example.
posted by amberglow at 12:12 PM on May 20, 2004

Well, my guess is that MOST people who are anti-gay marriage also are somewhat homophobic. But I doubt this is always the case.

Here's a personal analogy (that will probably get me in trouble here, but what the hell...). I am not a racist. Now obviously, I can't prove that, so you'll just have to take my word for it (or not). I have had friends of a variety of races; I have no problem working under, say, an African American; I would have no problem marrying and having kids with a person of any race, etc.

I also work in the theatre, where it's become common practice to use "alternative casting." This might mean casting a black man in what was traditionally a white man's role.

In general, I'm against that. For instance, it bothered me that in the recent film version of "Much Ado About Nothing," Denzel Washington was cast as Keanu Reeve's brother. It bothered me because it burst the bubble for me -- just as it would burst my bubble if a modern telephone appeared in a movie set in the middle ages. There WERE no phones in the middle ages and black men and white men are never biological brothers.

When I watch a movie or a play, the most important thing to me is believing that the story is real -- forgetting it is fiction. I know that some people don't feel that this is important (or even feel that it is wrong), but it's the whole reason I enjoy fiction. And I'm against anything that weakens that experience.

So -- at least by my definition -- I'm not racist, but I AM against equal-opportunity casting in plays and films. You can call this racist, and I can only tell you that my feelings, when I am disliking a casting choice are nothing to do with disliking people of various races. They are all about wanting to believe. (I would also NOT like to see a white person cast as a character who is clearly supposed to be black).

Now, I would NEVER advocate passing a law forbidding people to cast black people in traditionally white parts. That would be wrong. That would be imposing my preference on the world. But I can understand the FEELING of someone who would want that -- and I can understand how someone who would like such a law might not dislike black people or think that they are inferior to white people.

So I can see how someone might be against gay marriages without being homophobic (scared of gay people).

And I know some gay people who are against gay marriages. They are not self-hating. They are just traditionalists.
posted by grumblebee at 12:21 PM on May 20, 2004

Why is marriage desirable?

A very good question. My girlfriend and I are getting married in August, and some people have wondered why we're bothering, considering it won't be legally recognized. Our answer is this:

We believe that having a commitment ceremony is very important. Standing before our friends and families and publicly declaring our intention to love and honor each other is a powerful statement to ourselves, to our community and to the world. As grumblebee noted above, there is great meaning in symbols like the wedding, like the ring, like the terms (wife vs. girlfriend etc) - because society has made it so. The gathering of friends and family, the wedding band, the common last name are all symbols that society have come to associate with a certain level of commitment (snarkiness about divorce aside), and as such, we're very conscious and deliberate about adopting them.

Unfortunately, our ceremony will not result in our qualifying for the incredibly numerous legal and civil benefits of being legally married - benefits in areas like hospital visitation rights, estate taxes, parental rights, co-ownership etc etc etc. The list is enormous and you can find it in comments above. Some day these civil rights will be available to all people, and when they are we will get married 'again'. But in the meantime, we are doing what we want to do - and throwing a kick-ass party in the process!
posted by widdershins at 12:28 PM on May 20, 2004

ah. when you said "against" i presumed you meant someone who would object to changing the law. now i think you're saying there are people who wouldn't dream of using the law to exclude gay people (and so would not actively oppose legalising gay marriage), but would feel uncomfortable personally. my bad, i guess, although you seem to have backed into an awfully tight corner.
posted by andrew cooke at 12:33 PM on May 20, 2004

I don't think I've backed into a corner at all. Whether people want to change the law or not isn't the issue.

All I claimed was that it's POSSIBLE to be anti-gay marriage for other reasons than because you hate gay people.

And I stand by that.
posted by grumblebee at 1:36 PM on May 20, 2004

it's POSSIBLE to be anti-gay marriage for other reasons than because you hate gay people.

I've debated this with a lot of people in the Mass-Vermont area. There seems to be a feeling that "marriage" [the word and the ceremony] has something to do with church/religion/god and allowing gay people into that would feel weird to them as churchgoers and religious people. I can see that, though it is not my opinion. To me the real dividing line is whether you're willing to go all out [like Kerry sometimes seems to, who is also against "gay marriage"] and say "But I won't rest until committed gay couples have equal rights with straight couples. Totally equal rights. Everywhere. And I don't want to wait generations for these equal rights to trickle down." I add to that "And I think civil disobedience is required to make this happen" but not everyone does. Mazel tov, widdershins.
posted by jessamyn at 2:19 PM on May 20, 2004

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