Thursday, September 10, 2009

Marriage Lite: lessons from France and Vermont

In France, they do not allow same sex marriage, but have a civil unions law. However, for various reasons, these unions are available to gay or straight couples.Here's how it works:
France's civil union law was created in 1999 because gays were not allowed to marry, and they didn't want gays to be able to marry. However, in crafting the new law, which was understood to be for gays, the legislators left the language vague about gender. (Maybe this was because of the strong European Union rules requiring gender neutral and sexual orientation neutral language in new legislation -- they didn't want to trigger any challenges.)

Now, after 10 years, one third of all straight couples getting "hitched" in France, opt for civil unions instead of marriage. The number of civil unions has grown annually from 6000 in the first year of the law, to 140,000 in 2008 --- with 92% of the civil unions last year involving straight couples.

The main reason seems to be that a civil union offers about the same rights and benefits of marriage, but is easier to get out of than a marriage.
Obviously, the idea was that it would be enough for the gays, and the straights would still opt for marriage. (Remember in France, marriage is a civil contract held at the mairie, separate from any religious ceremony.) It hasn't worked out that way, so the conservative view, of denying gays full access to "marriage", has actually ended up in hurting marriage even more.

Interestingly, back when this law was passed, David Frum (no friend to gay marriage) argued that exactly this would happen.
[G]ay marriage will turn out in practice to mean the creation of an alternative form of legal coupling that will be available to homosexuals and heterosexuals alike. Gay marriage, as the French are vividly demonstrating, does not extend marital rights; it abolishes marriage and puts a new, flimsier institution in its place.
But the problem with his conclusion is that actual gay MARRIAGE wouldn't have changed everything. It was the insistence that gays NOT be given "real" marriage and instead by given "marriage lite" that has caused the problem. If gays had been given access to the true institution of civil marriage, then nothing would have changed. It's not the gays' fault that straights want to live outside of marriage. And it's not the gays' fault that the government insisted that there be a "lite" form.

Andrew Sullivan picked it up:
In this, the gay movement, in its support for civil marriage equality, is a force right now for social conservatism; and the Christianist movement is the one fomenting the real attack on the institution of marriage. Christianist doctrine - unrelated to the social facts of our time - is, in fact, a social solvent. It helps destroy the family (ask the Haggards); it undermines civil marriage's uniqueness; and it discourages social responsibility. That's because it is about maintaining the stigma toward homosexuality rather than about supporting the important social role of marriage in keeping society together.
Now, let's look to our own country. Vermont was the first state to offer civil unions, which were ground breaking at the time. This was in response to a court decision finding that gay people should be given all the same rights as straight people. However, separate proved not to be equal. A few months ago, the Vermont legislature voted in favor of marriage equality, even overturning a gubernatorial veto to do so, and on Tuesday, gay couples were able to marry legally there. As we celebrate the weddings in Vermont this week, let's remember the words of the Episcopal Bishop of Vermont, as he testified in favor of full marriage:
Marriage equality means different things to different people, but among the things it means to me is that the values I hold dear in my own marriage can be honored, displayed and celebrated by all. Those values include the mutual love and support of another person in a committed life-long relationship, in which fidelity, joy, help and comfort in all circumstances can be respected and practiced, and through which the stability of family can be provided for those who choose to care and nurture children. I do not believe that this legislation will diminish, damage, or compromise the integrity of marriage (certainly not my marriage). On the contrary, I believe it has the possibility to strengthen our understanding and appreciation of marriage as we witness the love and fidelity of gay and lesbian couples alongside that of straight couples.
So the next time people tell you that we should be happy with "Separate But Equal" remind them of what happened in France. And then point them to what happened in Vermont!

May your weddings be joyful, Vermonters!

Cross posted at Daily Kos.

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