Separate is not equal

Many state benefits, and federal ones, too, are tied specifically to 'marriage'
By DEIRDRE FULTON  |  March 25, 2009

Many people think civil unions might be a workable compromise. But after nine years in Vermont, there's evidence that enough is wrong with them — and right with marriage — to convince that state's Senate to back a civil-marriage proposal by a margin of 26-4 on Monday night.

"Same-sex marriage | Fighting for a basic civil right without repeating other states' mistakes"by Deirdre Fulton.

"The text of the bill | Key sections from 'An Act To End Discrimination in Civil Marriage and Affirm Religious Freedom'"by Jeff Inglis.

Part of what persuaded them was logistical. While civil unions provide state-level benefits (in Maine, there would be more than 300), they don't provide federal benefits (of which there are more than 1000, according to EqualityMaine's Betsy Smith). One example: Civil unions don't make partners eligible for each other's Social Security benefits if one of them dies.

Even more important to many activists is the social and semantic limitation of the term "civil union." That phrase simply has a different connotation than the word "marriage." Regardless of how it's spun, until they have access to the same word as straight couples do — having "weddings," saying they are "married" — same-sex couples operate within a separate sphere.

At this juncture, regardless of how Vermont's Democrat-dominated state House and Republican governor act on the bill, marriage approval in that state is mostly a symbolic change. Until Congress, which passed the Defense of Marriage Act in 1996, changes its stance on gay marriage, federal benefits will still be held hostage.

Still, the Vermont effort lays the groundwork for organizers in other states, and on a national level. As Don Eggert, the creative director of Vermont alt-weekly Seven Days, wrote in his publication a few weeks ago, "we don't want other states arguing for civil unions. We want them arguing for marriage, so they don't have to go through what we're going through right now and have this debate twice. Let them use us as an example and say, 'They wish they'd called it gay marriage from the beginning.'"

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