Thursday, April 30, 2009

Is changing the name of the state-sanctioned relationship for couples from "marriage" to "civil partnership" the same as abolishing marriage?

After many years of advocating that marriage should be abolished as a legal institution and left entirely to religion, I changed my mind at some point in the process of writing Beyond (Straight and Gay) Marriage. I heard so many gay men and lesbians talk about the importance of marriage to their personal happiness and sense of well-being that I decided (with uncharacteristic humility) that I was no longer willing to advocate denying so many people something that mattered so much to them.

I did –and do-- urge that the legal term for all state-sanctioned intimate partnerships be changed from “marriage” to “civil partnership.” I've blogged about it here. While the official term on all the state forms would be “civil partnership,” I fully expect most people to refer to themselves as married, and that doesn’t trouble me.

Well, earlier this week I delivered the Roger S. Aaron Lecture at Dartmouth College. In the audience was Beth Robinson, the attorney most responsible more than a decade of judicial and legislative efforts that brought us civil unions and now marriage for same-sex couples in Vermont. Beth considered my call to rename the legal status of couples no different from a position abolishing marriage.

I have assumed that what couples want is the blessing of the state, the ceremony that goes with that, and a stature equal to that afforded different-sex couples. As long as the name for that is "marriage," then same-sex couples should have that name also. But it never occurred to me that keeping a distinct legal status for couples, but renaming that status for all couples to reflect the modern values of partnership, would appear to anyone as indistinguishable from the abolition of marriage.

I'm curious what others think.


Michael Ginsborg said...

Two college students are circulating a petition to qualify the Domestic Partnership Initiative for California's 2010 ballot. ( It would strike the word 'marriage' from state laws and substitute 'domestic partnership.' Whatever the merits of the proposal, the Sacramento Bee and San Francisco Chronicle report that it has little popular support. It is unclear to me why full legal equality of families - whether nuclear or extended families - requires dispensing with state recognition of marriage. But that is also why I will need to read your book.

tcs3600 said...

As a non-lawyer, I don't think it sounds the same as abolishing marriage. I'd like to know more about why Beth Robinson said that. But I can see why this and the California initiative would be unpopular.

"Marriage" comprises not only a legal and a religious institution, but also a social/ consumer institution (see Modern Bride magazine). People who support "same-sex marriage" may have multiple goals: 1) legal rights; 2) acceptance within their religion if they have one; 3) full participation in the social/ consumer institution (aka Modern Bride&Bride magazine).

To want a particular name for the legal paperwork, I think, is to confound sense 1 with sense 3. It's not only about equality, it's about what American culture raises us to expect: a big fat wedding, the envy of our friends and the pride of our families.

Personally, I'm glad I civil-married my partner, and I admit it gives me a thrill that we've gotten into an old, exclusive club called "marriage," but what I want is equal status, legally and socially. I don't care what the legal name is.

The funny thing is that we can eventually win against bad science, homophobic officials, and antiquated religious interpretations, but god(dess) help us if we challenge the wedding industry and the expectations they instill.

Anonymous said...

Hi Nancy,

I was able to attend your lecture and i loved it! Thank you for coming to Dartmouth.

I also don't really understand why changing the word from marriage to "civil partnership" is considered by some to be abolishing marriage. i thought it was interesting how Beth said that changing the vocabulary would be excluding all those people who want to be "married" (so therefore what you are advocating for would actually be an exclusive policy as opposed to a policy that encompasses family diversity). I think this is completely ridiculous. The point is not to take the word away from them, it is to separate all the baggage that comes with marriage from the law.

I am in a very committed partnership right now and in the future would like to enter into some kind of protective legal contract with my partner, but would NEVER consider getting "married." I would rather get swine flu. Just the thought of calling myself married gives me a headache.


thank you for visiting Dartmouth again, you really opened my eyes.

Nancy Polikoff said...

I appreciate these comments. I crossposted on Bilerico at
so if you want to read what a few other folks said, check it out. I found myself wondering about the term "civil partnership marriage." I would love the word partnership in there somewhere.

Harry834 said...

The purpose of changing the legal name from "marriage" to "civil partnership" is to give couples the same legal thing with a different name - in the hope that this name change will allow couples to take the legal thing, with it seconomic benefits, but still feel free to consider themselves "unmarried" if that's how they choose to define their relationship.

The key thing here is accomadating couples' feelings of relationship-definition. Would couples feel "unmarried" enough if the license was named differently?

Perhaps the protests of the "name change=abolition of marriage" is evidence that the name change DOES affect the feelings of self-definition for the couple. I had often entertained a theory that since the getting the license was the humdrum, non-cermonial part of the "marriage", people would not mind much if that part changed. But perhaps they do.

Without a doubt, those couples/individuals heavily investes in the cause of marriage equality will (likely, but not unanimously) feel a sense of "purpose defeated" if that golden prize called marriage was to be taken away from the government that finally grew up to recognize equality. We worked hard to enforce the idea that there was a difference between civil marriage and religious marriage, and the latter was no body's interest for reform. But if civil marrigae is taken away, and we're stuck with religious marriage....uughh.

I have to balance these thoughts with the real needs articulated by Nancy Polikoff in her book. I do have to commend her for taking these issue which seems so tangental to the modern gay movement, but also so necessary for us all to hear. Marriage should NOT be primary means to win legal economic benefits for families, and families of ALL stripes should be recognized and supported by an enlightened government and society.

I once toyed with the idea of having both marrigae and civil partnership for all couples (no discrimination in either). This clashed with my separate not equal mindset, but perhaps Nancy's note about the exact (or near exact?) similarity between DC domestic partnership law and marriage implies that the tangible benefits CAN be more or less the same (with vigiliance to erase remaining disparities)...

But is this again a separate but equal thing. And anyway, will anyone care about getting a partnership license vs a marraige license? Does the piece-of-paper label really mean that much?

Damn I think I contradicted myself. Stream of consciousness...

Harry834 said...

Hoolisa, I just read your comment:

"I am in a very committed partnership right now and in the future would like to enter into some kind of protective legal contract with my partner, but would NEVER consider getting "married." I would rather get swine flu. Just the thought of calling myself married gives me a headache."

I feel I learned something that I did not know when I wrote my huge comment just now. Interesting what you can learn when you listen/read.

If the use of the name "marriage" on that piece of paper is enough to give you heebies, then perhaps that piece of paper is not as un-emotional and insignificant as I thought...

Harry834 said...

can't we have BOTH "civil partnership" AND "marriage"? It won't be separate and unequal because you can choose either one (whereas school segregation and marriage inequality both involve mandatory exclusions). Nancy did admit that domestic partnerships/civil unions can and do have the exact (or near exact) same list of benefits. Of course we will have to stay vigilant to make sure that each has the same good benefits (just like we should be vigilant about providing equal quality schools for inner-city and suburban schools, but parents are allowed to send their kids to either).

Would not this work?

danielle_1377 said...

I do not believe it is abolishing marriage. As a lesbian ,and living in the south as I do, fighting and winning for any right is an accomplishment in itself. My partner and I have to go to another state to legally be married (if you really consider limitation on residency "marriage" as opposed to civil union which still doesn't give all the federal recognition as marriage is suppose ... all because of a WORD. I believe in truth marriage- civil union- domestic partnership , when it is out of love the name doesnt really matter, but love alone doesnt allow your "love" to make choices for you in a time of need, to parent and give love together to a child who needs a permnant home in the form of adoption, ect. As much as I would like to think it is just a word , we as a people have put so much meaning behind that word it is more. Honestly I think if it were to be changed to civil partnership it would be a step closer in the right direction of ridding the stigma and help us in a direction of equality. Thanks for letting vent...

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