In the movement for LGBTQ rights, specifically that of legal recognition of same sex relationships, activists and others place heavy emphasis on “marriage” being the only possible title to achieve full equality. Equality can’t exist until LGBTQ and straight people alike fill out the exact same form for the legal binding of two people. However, how do we handle the gray area of actually attaining equality? For states that are working for legislation through the house and senate rather than by winning a lawsuit, civil unions may be the bill that gets the opportunity to become a reality first. This is the case with the current battle for civil unions in Illinois. To some, this is a half defeat. To me, it’s a path to marriage equality that could potentially revolutionize the way every American chooses to define their relationships.
The Illinois House is voting today on HB 2234, “The Illinois Religious Freedom and Civil Union Act,” which will hopefully move onto the Senate. Organizations that avidly believe in marriage equality have jumped behind the bill, despite the fact that activists across the state will have to start the whole process over again once Equal Marriage legislation begins to go anywhere in Illinois. Although equality will not be won in a single stride, civil unions would be stepping forward in a direction that provides options for queer and straight couples that have nothing to do with marriage. Many senior citizen couples choose to not marry because their social security benefits would be slashed. Civil unions are not federally recognized and avoids this cutback in much needed income. Couples who simply do not identify their relationship as the modern social conception of marriage have the option to make their union what they desire. In a community that is massively based on how one identifies, we need to look more into how our relationships with one another can identify as well. For centuries, American’s have had one choice in defining their relationship. Is marriage the only battle we have to win, or will we choose equality but also choose freedom to choose? Will you want your relationship to be bound by an institution that was founded off of beliefs that may directly go against your lifestyle? Personally, I may prefer the secular but equal union, even it is separate. This preference does not take away my passion for true marriage equality, as I believe it is a necessary step to change the collective consciousness of Americans and their comfort level with same sex relationships.
Aside from the fact that civil unions, if allowed, could re-define the way all Americans identify their
relationships with the government, it could serve as a stepping stone for states who deal with a more powerful opposition. Will it be easier to sway opinions of those who were against marriage equality once they see that the sky has in fact remained intact? Once the “movable middle” can see that their children are not coming home gay, will it be an easier victory? There is disagreement among this question, but I feel if done correctly and with the right organization, civil unions can in fact be a catalyst for marriage equality.
Right now the “movable middle” seems very confused. In the eyes of many, states are passing marriage
equality out of nowhere. The opposition is growing more visible and exponentially more angry. Organizations working to preserve the “sanctity” of marriage by blasting campaigns based off lies and propaganda (i.e., National Organization for Marriage) are instilling fear in the communities in which we need to be talking the most. As we know from American history, fear is hard to ease. Even with the surge of victories in the marriage movement, some states can barely see the light at the end of the tunnel, and for some its still pitch black. Civil unions may be the lantern that lights the path to equality, and will allow basic, state given rights and protections along the way. Afterwards, they can remain and be an option for any American who is looking for an alternative to marriage but still want their relationship legally recognized. How this in fact will happen is still undetermined, but its an issue that will only gain more attention if other states begin the battle that is happening in Illinois.
The queer community has come miles in the past half-century, and are making gains at light speed with the insurgence of pro-LGBTQ activism since the passing of Proposition 8. Instead of focusing on the vernacular of the movement, activists need to start paying more attention to what our community actually needs at the current moment in time. In Illinois, I have seen endless dialogue over the morality, so to speak, of supporting civil union legislation when it isn’t full equality. In my opinion, there was no conversation to be had. I was supporting it because it would be supporting my community and those who need help now and cannot wait the undetermined time for equal marriage legislation to make it through. It may not be exactly the type of legislation I had hoped for, but as we all know, we need to take what we can get, and then keep fighting for more. When looking at the potential the Civil Union system could hold once developed on a more national level, I realized that I could care little about the word that describes my relationship, as long as in the fine print we are exactly equal. In a way, I would be rejoicing in the fact that my union wasn’t founded by religious institutions, and doesn’t have a “50 percent chance of failure” bubble hanging over my head. But again, thats just me. I never said I wouldn’t cry at every same sex marriage ceremony I attend in the future.
Nik Maciejewski, who authored this post, is among the founders of Join The Impact Chicago who led 15,000 people in the streets of Chicago on November 15, and has continued work in their state to raise awareness and keep people involved. Their most recent work has been towards passing the Civil Unions Bill in IL & a Federal Fully Inclusive ENDA. Nik also serves as the North Central Regional Liaison for Join The Impact. Willow thinks he’s a brilliant example of what can happen when a barrista finds their calling in activism.