Civil unions are cool, even though they only solve part of the couple privilege problem1
May 1, 2013 by aggiesez
Here in Colorado last night I accompanied two friends to the local County Clerk’s office at midnight to celebrate them registering their newly-legal civil union in this state. These women have been life partners for over a decade. I was proud and happy to witness them (and many other couples) out in the rainy, unseasonably cold weather at such a late hour on a weekday night.
Yes, they were celebrating their love and their community — and they were also taking a crucial, visible step toward overturning a blatant example of discriminatory legal and financial privilege.
In Colorado, the new civil unions law allows unmarried couples, straight or gay, to gain legal recognition for their life partnerships and get some rights similar to those of married couples, including transferring property, making medical decisions, adopting children and qualifying for health insurance and survivor benefits. (Interestingly, the main impact of Colorado civil unions is likely to be in the dissolution of same-sex relationships.)
This is all good, because couple privilege sucks — both in society at large, and even within the culture of nontraditional relationships.
One of the huge problems with social or official discrimination and prejudice is that it makes some people, and their relationships and families, socially less visible and valid. Not having privilege means that you, your partners, and your family face more challenges and risks — simply for being who you are, or for loving who (or how) you love.
I’m not so idealistic as to believe that civil unions in Colorado or elsewhere will instantly or totally level the playing field for same-sex couples. Besides the fact that federal law and programs still often disadvantage non-straight, non-legally-married people and their families, most of Colorado is still pretty socially conservative.
Civil unions notwithstanding, gay people in Colorado will still face plenty of discrimination in employment, housing, family law, churches, schools and in social situations. Queer people (especially genderqueer and transgendered people) will, as always, face even more challenges to equality. No one outside of the hetero/cisgendered mainstream will be necessarily be any less prone to hate crimes, ostracism, and more in Colorado. But here at least, gay couples now have one important tool that will help them fight for their rights. That’s progress, and it’s important.
Still, a bigger-picture problem remains: the tyranny of coupledom.
Civil unions, gay marriage, and similar efforts are a manifestation of the social relationship escalator norm. They culturally venerate and also legally and financially privilege two-person, cohabitating, family-oriented, intended-to-be-lifelong, and (usually, ostensibly) monogamous relationships.
Which means: The many people who are unpartnered (by choice or circumstance) or who prefer nontraditional off-the-escalator relationships (such as polyamory, open relationships, networks or tribes, etc.) still generally lack — or at least have to struggle for — the same rights and privileges that are automatically conferred upon legally recognized couples.
Plus, outside the realm of legally recognized couplehood, you often must struggle simply to be seen and heard on a social level. That gets exhausting and annoying. Worse, it can put you at risk of shunning or retribution for speaking up to challenge strong social norms — something that people who stand comfortably in the mainstream often find deeply threatening or embarrassing.
This is why so many people in open, polyamorous, or otherwise significantly nontraditional relationships stay in the closet. Which only makes the whole problem worse, because closeting lets others pretend we don’t exist — or at least that we don’t matter, or that we are shameful.
Not having privilege is not just inconvenient and risky — it’s expensive! Especially (as The Atlantic reported recently) for solo people, who don’t have (or maybe don’t want) a cohabitating primary life partner.
Restrictive legal definitions of relationships can also have dire consequences for families and children.
For instance, I have a friend who is part of a poly family. Her lawfully wedded husband also has a female partner, who gave birth to their son. All three adults live together as a family and together they are raising an outstandingly happy, healthy child.
This child happens to have a dad and two moms — except in the eyes of the law in their state, which will only recognize two legal parents. Which meant my friend and her partners had to execute significant and costly legal gyrations to provide my friend with rights and responsibilities regarding their child. Still there’s no guarantee: their chosen, legally documented familial arrangement might easily be called into question or put at risk should a grandparent, neighbor, school district, or malevolent jerk decide to make trouble for them.
That my friend and her family lives under such a sword of Damocles truly sucks. It makes me angry. Children need so much love and care — why create obstacles for anyone who wants to shoulder parental responsibility for a child they love and are raising? Especially when parental rights are not automatically revoked for parents who abandon or abuse their own children. I’ve seen that happen in my extended family of origin, and it breaks my heart.
Still, I’m very, very happy for my friends and many other couples In Colorado who are now finally able to gain an important measure of legal, social, and financial recognition and privilege in my state. Having access to civil unions makes them a little more safe and secure. They deserve no less than straight people.
Also, I love attending weddings — hey, I had one myself, many years ago! I do believe romantic/sexual love and building a family deserve to be celebrated. So do friendship, family or choice, dedication to high life purposes besides relationships, and simple autonomy. None of these personal ties and strengths should be privileged or venerated above the others. They are all fabulous, and our world is far richer for this diversity.
What might seriously level the playing field and end the tyranny of couplehood?
Personally, I wish all government and legal rights, benefits, and responsibilities were accorded primarily to individuals. I wish that people were free to form contractual arrangements to define their families however they see fit — without fear that their choices and agreements might be easily undermined by a judge who’s more interest in judgmentalism than justice, or by a nosy bigot, or by a control-obsessed former partner.
And I wish insurance companies, banks, and other institutions and businesses just had to figure out how to roll with diversity in relationship and family structure. Love and life were never one-size-fits all; why should we pretend they are just to make things easier for a corporation?
Finally, speaking as a solo person, I can affirm that solohood can be every bit as wonderful (or boring, or messed up) as couplehood. I am no less valid as a solo poly person than I was when I was part of a legally recognized and (at first) monogamous marriage.
I am my primary partner. I’m good at it, and I’m good with it. Being secure in my autonomy allows me to be stronger and more wonderful not just in my own life, but also for my lovers, partners, friends, and family of origin and choice. And I hope someday I live in a world where I am not at a legal, financial, or social disadvantage simply because I’m neither coupled nor monogamous.
Maybe we’ll get there someday. In the meantime, I think I need to start planning a celebration of my autonomy. Hey, any excuse for a party!
Although I’m married, I can’t agree more with this whole post. Legalization of gay marriage is a big step toward equality, but far from true equality yet. Our society still puts romantic/sexual monogamous pair-bond on a pedestal and discriminates single people and people who want relationships outside the norm. In my ideal world, people should be free to form contractual arrangements with whomever they like, regardless the gender and number of these people. Also I don’t care if such arrangements are called marriage, as long as it’s truly equal to everyone.