Will New Jersey Stop at Civil Unions? the State Supreme Court Says Gay Couples Deserve Equality in Marriage, but It Gave the Legislature 180 Days to Define What That Means. If Lawmakers Offer Civil Unions, Don't Expect Much of a Celebration

By Rostow, Ann | The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine), December 5, 2006 | Go to article overview

Will New Jersey Stop at Civil Unions? the State Supreme Court Says Gay Couples Deserve Equality in Marriage, but It Gave the Legislature 180 Days to Define What That Means. If Lawmakers Offer Civil Unions, Don't Expect Much of a Celebration


Rostow, Ann, The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)


If the 1999 court ruling that led to civil unions for gays in Vermont was an occasion for champagne, New Jersey's late-October decision granting same-sex couples rights equal to marriage--but not the name marriage--called for a bottle of beer. Seven years ago civil unions were an unquestioned achievement. Now, after achieving full marriage equality in Massachusetts, gays and lesbians are sniffing at them like an old hand-me-down.

So where does that leave us in the fight to have our unions recognized as marriage--an effort that seems to become more exhausting the longer it goes on? Underneath the highs and lows since Massachusetts Connecticut's enactment of civil unions with little fanfare or national press, California's legislature passing a same-sex marriage bill only to see it die on Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's desk, dismal court losses in Washington State and New York--the gay rights movement has continued to log steady, irreversible progress.

The rights of marriage now seem within reach, both through the courts and state legislatures. But there will be a lot of compromise along the way--a lot of "civil unions." Should gays and lesbians back off from their all-out fight for the m word and focus instead on a sustained drive for equal rights?

The answer to that question from most gay leaders is a firm "no, but. ..." David Buckel, the head of Lambda Legal's Marriage Project, which led the legal charge in New Jersey, asks, "Do we lie down in front of the path of civil unions and oppose them? Any protections are better than none. But where we could win the right to marry and New Jersey is certainly one of those places--we should be fighting for marriage."

Civil unions are only won by asking for marriage in the first place, says veteran marriage activist Evan Wolfson, executive director of Freedom to Marry. Today's support for such compromises represents a "placeholder in people's thinking," Wolfson says, as they straddle the fence between their belief in equality and their entrenched view of heterosexual marriage. But make no mistake, he says, the goal is to get them over the fence.

Wolfson, who has long been at the forefront of LGBT legal activism, has also been one of the most consistent advocates of what he calls "the scary work of winning"--the effort to educate the public and gradually build the kind of popular support that will eventually win the hearts and minds of lawmakers and judges. Town meetings and debates are not as dramatic as court cases. Coming out to coworkers is not as exciting as a marriage protest at City Hall. But this is arguably the stuff of ultimate victory.

Perhaps the biggest worry is that acceptance of civil unions as an incremental approach might lead not to marriage but to a long period of institutionalized inequality, ill which civil unions become the norm for gay men and lesbians--and marriage cements its position as the exclusive realm of heterosexual couples. "That's the $64,000 question," says Gary Buseck, legal director of Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders, which brought the Vermont and Massachusetts lawsuits. …

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