According to preliminary data reported today in the New York Times, same-sex couples in New Jersey aren't rushing to the altar...uh, union hall. In the first month civil unions have been available in the state, only 229 same-sex couples have signed up (the number may be somewhat larger as it's not clear that all jurisdictions in the state have reported).
If that rate continues, we could expect only about 4,500 to 5,000 civil unions over the next two years in a state with 8.6 million residents. By contrast, in the first two years of full-fledged marriage in Massachusetts, 8,764 gay couples got married in a state of 6.1 million residents.
What accounts for this lack of enthusiasm for civil unions -- in comparison to marriage -- by gay couples? A number of factors may be at work, but one the Times highlights is that civil unions are now seen by gay couples as an insult, a kind of second-class status akin to segregation. Consider what some New Jersey couples have to say:
Charles Paragian, a dance instructor in Little Ferry who with his partner of 17 years adopted five children from foster care, called the civil union “bread crumbs” compared with same-sex marriage.
“I don’t want my children to learn to settle for anything,” said Mr. Paragian, 44. “It’s a Jim Crow law, it’s two separate water fountains, it’s not equal, we just don’t agree with it.” . . .
Steven Goldstein, head of Garden State Equality, a leading New Jersey gay advocacy group, and David S. Buckel, senior counsel at Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, said they were aware of more than 20 couples who had obtained civil unions but said they were nonetheless denied rights afforded to married couples. None have yet led to a lawsuit challenging civil unions.
“Hospitals, employers, and other institutions will say, ‘We don’t care what the law says, you are not married,’ ” Mr. Goldstein said. “The word is starting to spread that the civil union law is in fact not working to provide couples with the protection that only the word marriage can.” . . .
Cindy Meneghin and her partner, Maureen Kilian, who live in Butler and were plaintiffs in the Supreme Court case that led to the civil unions, celebrated theirs on Feb. 24.
“It was important that we provide our family with as many protections as we are being allowed by our State Legislature,” Ms. Meneghin said. Still, she called civil unions “the Bermuda Triangle of relationships.”
“You can maybe pass through without any harm, but wait until you disappear,” Ms. Meneghin said. “Your relationship doesn’t have reality to people because you’re not married. It is very hurtful and degrading that we are not really full, equal citizens in our state.”
Think about this. A legal reform that has given gay couples all of the rights and benefits of marriage under state law -- a change that would have been unthinkable a generation or two ago -- is now considered hurtful and degrading by the very people it benefits. Initially seen as a great advance when they began in Vermont in 2000, and embraced by Democratic presidential candidates as a compromise, civil unions are acquiring an unsavory reputation.
What I think this suggests is that for many gay couples the struggle for marriage is not only, or even primarily, a struggle for particular legal benefits. It is a struggle for equal dignity, recognition, legitimacy, and respect under the law. That is something only full marriage can provide because it is a relationship that families, friends, co-workers, and employers readily understand. Marriage has a history and cultural meaning unrivaled by any other status. Academics who have hailed alternative statuses -- civil unions, domestic partnerships, registered partnerships, etc. -- as offering couples a "menu" of choices fail to appreciate that, to lots of gay couples, the only choice that really matters is marriage. To them, everything else on the menu is "bread crumbs." Or to use another metaphor I heard not long ago, civil unions are like a song with all the lyrics but none of the music.