Last night was the VT [LGBTQ] Marriage Comission’s final hearing. Testifiers addressed the semantic challenges of civil unions early and often. VT statute makes it clear: One “becomes party to a civil union” with one’s same sex partner instead of getting married, and “dissolves” a civil union instead of getting divorced. This creates challenges both serious and odd. As a particularly witty participant noted: “My [divorced] Friends get to be divorcees, even gay divorcees. [when my civil union was dissolved] I was… disillusioned?” She also pondered what to say when one has just gotten hitched, civil union style: “I’ve been… unionized? Great. Teamsters or AFL-CIO?”
Attending the hearing last night affected me more than I expected it would. Several people exposed civil unions for what they were: a good step in 2000. And what they are: a second rate substitute for marriage that makes sense only from a standpoint of fear or bigotry. In addition to showing clearly that civil unions aren’t equal to marriage, the testimony affirmed LGBTQ people, and partnerships. One woman opened by noting the state couldn’t make her 11 year relationship any stronger, she and her partner were the only ones who could do that. But, she asserted, the state should give them legal rights because their relationship was equal to that of their heterosexual neighbors, and to remove barriers to their taking care of each other. Of course she said it all better than I just did. Gray haired parents got up to talk about their gay children, their same-sex partners, their gay friends. The litany of stories made its mark. I left with a warm and fuzzy feeling.
But the warm and fuzzies were tempered with mild discomfort**. Even though most of the testimony was pro same-sex marriage, it is inherently hard to sit through debate about whether your relationships are worthy of legal status heterosexual couples can take for granted. As more than one married straight person said, it is embarrassing that we even have to have this conversation.
* As the legislature saw it when they passed the law, the only other difference between civil unions & marriage is that one has to be 18 to enter into a civil union, but minors can get married. In practice, it turns out there are other differences.
**Another source discomfort: That I get so fired up about marriage at the expense of devoting energy to more pressing social justice issues. It's realted to my annoyance that the pro marriage equality crowd so readily appropriated the language of civil rights movement. This is a whole 'nother topic , however, so i'll go there another day.