Nancy Polikoff

The same as abolishing marriage?

Filed By Nancy Polikoff | May 01, 2009 9:30 AM | comments

Filed in: Marriage Equality, The Movement
Tags: civil partnerships, marriage

After many years of advocating that marriage should be abolished as a legal institution and left entirely to religion, I changed my mind at some point in the process of writing Beyond (Straight and Gay) Marriage. I heard so many gay men and lesbians talk about the importance of marriage to their personal happiness and sense of well-being that I decided (with uncharacteristic humility) that I was no longer willing to advocate denying so many people something that mattered so much to them.

I did -and do-- urge that the legal term for all state-sanctioned intimate partnerships be changed from "marriage" to "civil partnership." I've blogged about it here. While the official term on all the state forms would be "civil partnership," I fully expect most people to refer to themselves as married, and that doesn't trouble me.

Well, earlier this week I delivered the Roger S. Aaron Lecture at Dartmouth College. In the audience was Beth Robinson, the attorney most responsible more than a decade of judicial and legislative efforts that brought us civil unions and now marriage for same-sex couples in Vermont. Beth considered my call to rename the legal status of couples no different from a position abolishing marriage.

I have assumed that what couples want is the blessing of the state, the ceremony that goes with that, and a stature equal to that afforded different-sex couples. As long as the name for that is "marriage," then same-sex couples should have that name also. But it never occurred to me that keeping a distinct legal status for couples, but renaming that status for all couples to reflect the modern values of partnership, would appear to anyone as indistinguishable from the abolition of marriage.

I'm curious what others think.

cross posted from Beyond Straight and Gay Marriage


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Nan Hunter Nan Hunter | May 1, 2009 10:00 AM

I agree that this is a very important question. I also would personally prefer that the name of the status be changed from marriage to civil union (etc). Nothing about "marriage" holds much appeal for me. But I too have come to realize that millions of other lgbt folks have a very different sensibility. So be it.

What bothers me most about the reluctance to opt for a substitute label is that it seems to denote a dog-with-a-bone approach to fighting over the M word. Even if everyone had the same legal status, with absolutely no distinction, many lgbt people seem to believe that if "marriage" is only a colloquial term and religious status - again, for everyone - that would not be enough. To me, that elevates a sideshow debate over a word over the principle and reality of equality.

In an ideal world, we would not already have a word (marriage) that has been in use in this country from the start. From a political standpoint, it's one thing to convince straight persons to "share" marriage with gays, but quite another matter to tell them that their "marriage" is being taken away to be replaced by something else, no matter how philosophically sound.

If there were to be a name change, I would opt for "civil marriage" as is used in most of Europe and all of Latin America already, in cultures where persons then have the option of also obtaining a "religious marriage" in a second, separate ceremony.

I should add that my partner of 30 years and I were married in San Francisco last fall (before Prop 8), and I we are profoundly happy to be married. All of our culture already has a long and rich tradition of respecting, encouraging, honoring marriage relationships, whether in public policy, family support, or in the movies and in music. I have never heard a song about how romantic, warm, and fuzzy it would be to have a "civil partnership". Nothing rhymes with it!

kathygnome | May 1, 2009 11:31 AM

I really don't care what it's called as long as its equal for everyone, gay or straight.

As to the "institution" itself, if marriage didn't exist as a bundle of legal rights and linkages, we'd have to invent it.

While I would wish to believe that people of every sexual orientation and gender identity can be rational and reasonable when it comes to a discussion of how intimate/longterm relationships are recognized by others persons, institutions, religious faith traditions, and the state, it ain't the case. Given that most of us seem incapable of rational thought on the topic, your clear-headed proposal, Professor Polikoff, falls on very unhearing ears...or maybe not so unhearing. I think Beth Robinson's assessment of abolition of marriage could be spot-on, in the sense that if the queerfolk are seen as advocating for a substitute phrase for all, we would likely be accused, in the most hysterical ways, of abolishing marriage. Dunno if that is where Beth is coming from, but that is what I would predict. Having said that, as a legally married spouse in Massachusetts, my girlfriend (wife, but we never use that word...it isn't hottt!) and I would be thrilled to chuck the word marriage right out the door and become civil partners, since we are always so civil...LOL!

I have no problem abolishing the legal status of marriage, even if it's called something else. I really hate the idea that my end of life decisions won't be respected unless I am married, even if I do all the legal paperwork ahead of time. But we live in a society that continues to perpetrate the myth that marriage alone builds society and it punishes those who don't enter into it. Those 1,138 rights denied to same sex couples are also denied to single people. I hate the idea that if I were to get legally married, I pay $75 here for a bundle of automatic legal rights, but if I don't marry, I'll pay hundreds if not thousands, all because I don't want to marry.

I know marriage, and the government recognition of intimate relationships, is important to people, but that isn't because of marriage itself but society's reaction to it. It is legitimate. I'm upset that I'm not :(

I'd like to get rid of "marriage" and give everyone "civil unions" because that would mean we married heteros would have to go to the court again and get a civil union license, since our marriage license would be null and void! (Kind of a "be careful what you wish for" for religious-right

I agree with vittorio's comment -- let's use the terms "civil marriage" and "religious marriage." They're close enough to the words we already use that people will accept the change/be able to incorporate it into speech, but makes the distinction that many want to see: a separation of church and state.


I have found that often there is an age divide on what term is used, marriage or something else. Gays and lesbians over 40 often grew to hate the word "marriage", seeing it as an institution that would never apply to them, another way that they are marginalized by society. I think that this has been especially true for some women, who grew up told to imagine themselves as brides, and internally knew that they would never be a bride. As kids they were given bride dolls, when a bit older, told to stand to catch the bouquet, all reinforcing a hurt of exclusion. I think that once marriage is truly a choice for all, and not an institution that denies gays and lesbians equality, that more lesbians will accept the term marriage. Also, many feminists have equated marriage with oppression and at times with spousal abuse. These ideas still color the current debate, which really needs to be updated. The debates about marriage, and women's equality have improved the status of all women, but especially straight women, over the last generation. If people are truly free to marry or not to marry (including gays), with all the rights (including from the federal government), then I do not think that there will be such a debate over what it is called. However, I do agree with the commenter above who thinks that straights will stop supporting marriage equality if straight marriage will be renamed, or taken away, to be replaced by something else.

I'm going to have to agree with Beth Robinson. What your proposed change would do, as I think you intend, is redefine the government recognition of a dyadic social group. You're asking us to think differently about why government offers (1) a particular bundle of rights and obligations to (2) a particular social group. Calling it "civil partnership" forces us to ask those very questions, a process which, if we're honest, really does undermine "marriage as we know it." Now you (and I) might not think that's a bad thing; others may disagree. But certainly we can all agree that renaming the institution begs us to rethink it pretty fundamentally.

"Marriage" has a history that "civil partnership" does not. Freed from that history and all its connotations, a "civil partnership" could be so many things that marriage is not. It could include more than two parties; it could encompass non-romantic groups of two or more; it could serve to recognize other caretaking relationships, etc. etc. Because "civil partnership" is empty of prior meaning, it's easy to fill it up. Marriage, not so much.

So the renaming really does abandon marriage -- abolish it even -- by replacing it with a brand new, open-to-definition, state-created imposition of mutual rights and responsibilities and third-party benefits on a yet-to-be-determined number of people related god-knows-how.

For some conservatives, that step happens as soon as you start letting same-sex couples marry. They call it a slippery slope, I (and probably you) call it questioning the validity of the modern government interest in marriage.

Either way, I think they're actually right that we're undermining marriage with this same-sex marriage thing. I just wish they wouldn't say it like it was a bad thing.

What do you think of "civil partnership marriage"? You can see that I am quite serious about changing the name.