Imagine the perfect civil union (provided such a thing could exist) in which gay couples truly do have the same rights as those which heterosexual married couples have enjoyed since the institution was first established. The implications of this civil union are such that a gay couple can share all of their assets, can maintain completely joint custody of their children both in their partnership and provided that they split up, can be covered under each other’s healthcare, can visit their dying partners in the hospital (may the atheist god forbid), etc. Every technicality of the legal contracts (which straight husbands sign with pens and which gay husbands sign with lipstick) are the same. In layman’s terms, everything is “fair”.
Let’s assume that marriages and civil unions, in the “utopia” which I have illustrated, are indeed as equal as I have painted them to be. All of the fine print is the same, and one might even say that, sans same sex pronouns, these two contracts are virtually indistinguishable from one another. If this is so, then what is the function of a different name for gay people and straight people’s ‘identical’ unions to their significant others in the first place? For an institution which is designed to promote equality, does it not seem counterintuitive that there should be a different word for what is said to be the same thing, based solely on sexual orientation?
There is more meaning than one might assume behind the differences between civil unions and marriages. This meaning does not have to do with the components or specifications of the institutions. It does not have to do with finding loopholes by which to deny gay couples of their marital (or can I call them that?) rights (though, to be sure, there will always be loopholes and ambiguities which will be used and abused dupe the gay community).
What this meaning is, ultimately, is emotional. It is a way of alienating gay people by giving them a right that straight people have, but delegitimizing it by calling it something else. At a party, at a work event, at school, at the beach, in the midst of receiving a colonoscopy, it is a way of making sure that everyone with whom a gay person in a civil union establishes a rapport with will be able to think “oh, a civil union? He is gay…” or “her ‘partner’? She must be a lesbian.” Even for heterosexuals who don’t have a vendetta against homosexuals, even for heterosexuals who support gay rights, it is impossible for a married man or woman to hear the term “civil union” or “partner” and not immediately distinguish that from their own, conventional, “real” marriage.
Does this sound just a little bit like what America fought against during the Civil Rights Movement? To me, the difference between a civil union and a marriage is the difference between a “blacks only” water fountain, and a “whites only” water fountain. This is an unjust blast from the past: it’s separate but equal all over again.