History, we hope, will consider civil unions nothing more than a first step. When our children look back, we can imagine them asking why anyone would consider it extraordinary for a state like Connecticut to affirm what seems so obvious: that gays deserve the same rights as their heterosexual counterparts.
But for now, we will have to content ourselves in knowing that despite the ongoing national effort to codify discrimination into the Constitution, Connecticut is pushing in a different direction. That’s not something to be taken for granted: Two years ago, New Haven — far from a right-wing bastion — couldn’t even pass a gay rights measure that had few legal implications. But in Hartford, the votes now appear to be in place in the Connecticut General Assembly for a bill that would offer same-sex couples virtually all the rights now granted to married citizens, and Republican Gov. M. Jodi Rell has said that she at least supports the “concept” of civil unions. Proudly, we can say that our state is prepared to be the first in the country to pass such a measure without being spurred on by the courts. In Connecticut, there is no doubting the fact that civil unions are moving forward because the state’s residents and representatives believe they should.
Some critics of civil unions point out that they are simply a means of passing gay marriage in disguise. On that minor point alone, they’re right — civil unions are on the table only because granting full marriage rights to gays is not yet politically possible. So even as the civil unions effort appears likely to succeed, that reality has raised its own questions for supporters of gay rights. Some of the most fervent activists, like the statewide group Love Makes A Family, have questioned whether civil unions are worth fighting for if what advocates really want is full marriage rights. And the more cautious contend that perhaps civil unions are enough — that once same-sex couples have all the rights afforded to their heterosexual counterparts, tacking on the word “marriage” is only symbolic.
The cautious types are correct about the facts of this debate, but they are mistaken about its implications. Once same-sex couples get all the legal trappings of marriage, the word itself is just symbolic. But that symbolism is crucially important, signifying whether or not the state is willing to treat all its citizens equally. Accepting civil unions as a permanent compromise undermines the moral justification for this movement in the first place: that gays should not be given a second-class status under the law.
At the same time, rejecting civil unions because they only go partway is neither wise nor right. The legal implications of civil unions are very real for gay couples, determining their rights on everything from health insurance to parental status. Civil unions also offer the chance to prove a point that, unfortunately, is still one of contention: that allowing gays to enter a lasting commitment under the law will not shatter the foundations of American society. Love Makes A Family may be right that civil unions are only a “half-step,” and in a debate where right and wrong seem so clear, patience certainly isn’t easy. But even a half-step is better than running in place.