That's the argument one journalist makes after interviewing several couples in Illinois who chose to get opposite-sex civil unions. But don't bet on these legal arrangements edging out marriage yet.
Writing in Slate, John Culhane says his interviews with some of the 148 straight couples who have gotten civil unions in Illinois since it became legal last June "reflect a cohort prepared to take the wrecking ball to marriage itself." According to research by the Illinois clerk's office, most straight couples who got civil unions had "personal or religious convictions against marriage" — some specified "solidarity with the gay community and/or support of equality, fairness, and inclusiveness," while others cited discomfort with the labels "husband," "wife," or "marriage." In his interviews, Culhane found several couples who chose civil unions as a statement in favor of LGBT rights — says one man, "until marriage is an option for everyone, it shouldn't be an option for us." He also found people who disliked traditional marriage and its implications — one newly married partner says having a civil union "keeps me from falling into any preconditioned behavior that I might have picked up. Calling [Leah] my partner, not my wife, helps me not to have any assumptions."
Culhane sets up these couples as a harbinger of the death of marriage and the rise of the civil union, but I'm not so sure. For one thing, many reported discrimination — several had officials question their decision not to marry, and one clerk insisted that the male partner be listed as "Partner A" even though the law has no such requirement. For another, civil unions still don't confer the same rights as marriage, and aren't federally recognized — discrimination against gay couples ends up affecting straight couples who choose this option. Third, despite the much-vaunted decline in marriage, our culture remains obsessed with the institution as a marker of personal success — not to mention an opportunity for a big wedding. It's tough to go against the grain, and if you're a straight couple who's ready to make a lifelong commitment, it's going to be hard to give up all the legal and social benefits of marriage in order to make a point. The idea of progressive straights giving up traditional marriage en masse in order of more egalitarian arrangements is a nice one, but extending marriage rights to gay couples still seems like the better path.
No To Nuptials [Slate]