Jackson Doughart
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What would have been so bad about civil unions?

Prince Arthur Herald, 12 November 2013

In Canada, homosexual marriage is “the law of the land”. Since failing to repeal it in 2006, conservatives have left the issue alone, rendering the question effectively closed. It is worth remembering, however, that the main argument from the Right at the time did not favour the status quo, but instead advocated a legal recognition for homosexual couples, while leaving the definition of marriage itself unchanged.

Over the past decade, the liberal position of redefinition has largely won out, with Britain having replaced civil unions with full marriage, the United States Supreme Court having set the foundation for nationwide legalization, the passage of “marriage for everyone” in France, and the Canadian situation, where civil unions never represented an intermediary stage between no-recognition and full redefinition. I’m curious as to why this is, as well as to why civil unions were so consistently dismissed as an unthinkable compromise, especially given that civil unions would have ameliorated all of the tangible concerns about injustice.

There were indeed problems with the previous lack of recognition, stemming from the reality that legal privileges associated with marriage, such as taxation advantages and hospital-visitation rights, were not available to homosexual couples. This discrepancy rightfully seemed to be morally arbitrary, given that heterosexual couples without children had access to these privileges and that many homosexual partners were as deserving of the same protections.

The liberal narrative portrays conservatives askance of sympathy for a gay widow being saddled with insurmountable debts following the death of his spouse due to a lack of legal protection, or a woman being barred from visiting her ill lesbian partner in a hospital, all because the law didn’t recognize them as a couple. I don’t believe that this is an accurate characterization, especially given the willingness of many Canadian conservatives to agree that these injustices should be corrected through legal recognition, though not through marriage.

That some people also rejected civil unions, and even homosexuality altogether, does not impinge on this inquiry. (For that matter, there were also cultural Marxists who opposed gay marriage because of their hatred for all marriage.) What matters is that civil unions were offered as a serious alternative to homosexual marriage, and that this alternative would have addressed the problem. By definition alone, one can see that civil unions, conferring “all of the rights and privileges of marriage”, must have been sufficient if marriage was sufficient, lest the whole exercise have been in vain.

Unless, of course, what really mattered was the word itself. Supporters of redefinition commonly argued against a “separate-but-equal” institution, thereby invoking a comparison with Jim Crow laws. But such equivalence fails rudimentarily: segregation was advanced on scientifically-insupportable distinctions between black and white persons. Legally distinguishing civil unions from traditional marriage does not separate homosexual from heterosexual persons; it separates homosexual from heterosexual relationships, which any thinking person, gay or straight, can see to be ontologically valid.

Others argued that marriage had been stripped of its relationship to child-rearing, and that arguments premised on the inability of homosexual relationships to produce children were thus invalid. I’m not convinced. Yes, the era of the indissoluble couple that would churn out 12 kids effectively ended with the advent of contraception, family planning, and divorce courts. But to this day marriage keeps at least some of these altogether-positive connotations. Many young people in committed opposite-sex relationships do not consider marriage unless the prospect of having children arises (or in many cases, has arisen already). Bearing children also give a deeper significance to the partnership which bonds the parents in an irreplaceable way, and one of historical centrality to the institution of marriage.

Understandably, the motivation for homosexual couples to enter into legally-recognized partnerships follows a different trajectory. This does not make the project inferior or insignificant, but it does call into question the wisdom of using the same word to describe two different phenomena.

Finally, some suggested that using the same word was the only way to ensure that a hospital administrator would not drag her proverbial heels in granting hospital visitation permissions, reading “civil union” as an indication to treat homosexuals without respect. But that isn’t a criticism of civil unions; it’s a criticism of the hospital administrator who would do this. And if civil unions did not provide the necessary legal privileges, then they wouldn’t be constituted by “all of the rights and privileges of marriage”, would they? So the clear solution to such cases would be to improve the terms of civil unions, not necessarily to pursue redefinition.

Beyond the technical arguments advanced by proponents of gay marriage, there lies a fundamental conviction behind the movement rallied in its support. Namely, it is believed the the pursuit of gay marriage was, and remains, the principal means of attaining greater respect for homosexuals as a minority. That’s a noble and important ambition, but one that could be advanced just as easily through civil unions. So why did it have to be marriage?

Call me cynical, but I think the answer lies in long-term political strategy and partisan advantage. The liberal worldview, which posits a good progressive side against an evil and bigoted resisting side, constantly needs new proof of its own insight. Advocating civil unions, which could alleviate problems but find more support from the other side, would not do that job. Rather, liberals saw homosexual marriage as both a winning issue and a cause which conservatives — including those reasonably sympathetic to actual cases of injustice against gays — could not, in good conscience, support. By bringing their position to a victory, liberals were able to simultaneously get the result they wanted, while feeding the image of their opponents as being on the “wrong side of history”.

So I conclude by posing a challenge to those who supported, and continue to favour, redefined marriage and nothing but redefined marriage: What, exactly, would have been so bad about civil unions?

Jackson Doughart jdoughart (at) gmail (dot) com