Monday, July 14, 2008

Civil Unions? Yes, Please!

The past few weeks have brought some good news for queer parents. According to a July 5th editorial in the Washington Post, the federal Office of Legal Counsel recently ruled that the child of a same-sex couple could receive child’s insurance benefits due to one of his mother’s Social Security Disability benefits.

Two women – whom the Post referred to as Monique and Karen - received a civil union when they first moved to Vermont with their son Elijah in 2002. According to the editorial, that civil union ensured that Karen legally qualified as a “parent” to Elijah despite the fact that she is not his biological mother. When Karen started receiving Social Security Disability benefits and stopped working, she requested that Elijah receive Social Security child’s insurance benefits as compensation for the loss of family income – and the Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) determined that the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) does not prohibit such benefits. The Post editorial quotes Deputy Steven A. Engel of the OLC as writing that “Although DOMA limits the definition of ‘marriage’ and ‘spouse’ for the purposes of federal law, the Social Security Act does not condition eligibility for [child insurance benefits] on the existence of a marriage or on the federal rights of the spouse in the circumstances in this case.”

The most important factor, it seems, is that the law in Vermont recognizes the minor (Elijah) as the child of the adult in question (Karen). Deputy Elder and the OLC imply that the decision in this case had little or nothing to do with Karen’s status in a same-sex partnership, and that Karen’s right to confer her Social Security benefits to Elijah is contingent on the state of Vermont’s recognition of Karen as a legal parent to Elijah. However, Karen’s status as a “legal parent” appears to be irrevocably intertwined with her status in a legally recognized partnership.

The ability of a non-biological parent in the United States to attain the legal status of “parent” is inconsistent and dependent on a variety of factors: access to resources, race, gender identity, sexual orientation, location, income, among others. Had Karen and Monique not had the opportunity to receive a civil union and procure that legal recognition of their relationship, would Karen have legally qualified as Elijah’s parent? I’m not sure anyone could say for certain.

While civil unions do not directly help single parents, they have shown – in the case of Vermont, for example – to ensure rights that can be extremely valuable to a wide array of LGBTQ people. There are many issues facing LGBTQ people that will not be solved via civil unions, and there are serious limitations to how effective nationwide civil unions would be; however, a case like this one in Vermont could be seen as a step in the direction of accounting for the needs of LGBTQ couples and parents who receive benefits from the government. The OLC’s decision to uphold the right of non-biological parents to confer benefits to their children could be important for many queer and non-queer people alike. It could register as particularly significant for transgender people who are, in many states, essentially required to seriously impede – or even eliminate – our ability to biologically reproduce before we can be recognized as our desired gender.

Legal relationship recognition is not purely symbolic, as many “HRC gays” obsessed with the institution of marriage would have us believe. It’s not even necessarily about the legal rights conferred to spouses, though that is clearly one potential positive attribute. For people who live off the government, it can be about having the right to provide for, take care of, and have children. Queer and trans activists can build off Monique’s, Karen’s, and Elijah’s victory and focus on the significance not of marriage, but of the economic benefits for adults and children that can accompany legal recognition of LGBTQ parents and their relationships.

If this nation isn’t “ready” to acknowledge LGBTQ individuals’ right to get married, why not push for civil unions that would open economic doors for LGBTQ people to be recognized as parents and take care of our children? Many queers and trans people have criticized Barack Obama for his views on “gay marriage”, for example, but I think Obama is correct in focusing on the economic inequalities underpinning legal recognition of couples in this country instead of getting wrapped up in the hype around the religious institution of marriage. I’d take a civil union any day – and, it seems, so would my children.


  1. Loren, I'm not sure what "HRC gays" means ... or whether you would think of my wanting the right to legally marry as an obsession.

    I do think that civil union and domestic partnership, while absolutely worth working for in the short run, are less than equal (and insulting and confusing) alternatives to marriage. Not that all rights SHOULD be tied to marriage, but at this moment in time, thousands are.

    I think the issue for schools is that children with one or more LGBTQ parents and guardians deserve as much legal protection and dignity as children with heterosexual parents. Marriage is the only way to provide that safety net in a way that will follow those families if they have to move due to a parent's career. And it's a term that every teacher, principal, and classmate will understand. It's not just a legal contract; it's a synonym for family.

    -- Beth

  2. Beth,

    Thanks for the comment.

    By "HRC gays" I guess I mean people who are in support of the HRC despite its transphobia and blatant refusal to support or put money towards any issues beyond those that affect upper/middle class gays and lesbians. (For example, where were they when Willie Campbell was sentenced to 35 years in prison in Texas last month?) The HRC certainly does not have my support, as they are only interested in a very limited, particular "LGBT community" that definitely doesn't include myself, my students or most of the LGBT people my students know or love.

    One of my points was that LGBT people clinging to the idea that marriage is "the only way" to guarantee rights is precisely the problem - it needn't be. For groups like the HRC to continue funneling all of their money and energy towards "marriage" instead of pushing for across-the-board civil unions (or health care for trans people, or documentation for LGBT immigrants, or rights for children of single queer/trans parents, etc) that would ensure rights is playing right into the religious right's hands.

    What I'm saying is that I think we need to focus on achieving rights for real LGBT people like Monique, Karen and Elijah instead of getting stuck on an idea of "marriage" - which is really just a preoccupation placed in many LGBT people's minds by the religious right in order to distract us from the fundamental issues and rights that matter, and to get us all caught up in a game of semantics.

    In my opinion, we need to divorce marriage from legality, for everyone's best interests (queer and non-queer, trans and non-trans) - and it's up to LGBT people to get that movement going. In order to do that, though, I think we'll need to let go of this fantastical idea of "marriage" that is taking up so much of our time.


  3. I received an email two nights ago related to this subject at - and think it is worth sharing here.

    Here's the letter (the writer's part is marked by this >) and the answers we gave him are in bold. The reply wasn't highly researched as there wasn't much time to reply.

    > My name is ---, and I am a high school student. I am taking a
    > summer health class, and our final project is on a topic of our
    > choice. My topic is gay marriage, and the project requires an
    > interview with somebody knowledgable on the issue. Your
    > organization seems to be the perfect resource for my questions
    > on same-sex parenting and other topics related to gay marriage.
    > I have tried contacting other chapters, but they haven't
    > responded yet. My project is due tomorrow, and I would be truly
    > appreciative if you could answer some quick questions for me.
    > 1. What are some of the most prominent arguments against gay marriage?

    1. It will destroy the institution of marriage.

    2. The purpose of marriage is to create children and same sex couples cannot do that.

    3. Homosexuality is a sin.

    > 2. Are these oppositions valid? What are some of the
    > counter-arguments?

    No they are not valid.

    The term 'gay marriage' implies special marriage rights. We are asking for the same rights to marriage - EQUAL rights.

    In answer to the above points:

    1. Heterosexual couples are destroying of plenty of marriages without any help. Look at the number of divorces.

    2. The purpose of marriage is to share a life with love and support. Some heterosexual couples cannot or do not have children and still find plenty of reason to be married. And some same sex couples do have children though insemination, adoption, etc.

    3. Separation of church and state. Sin is a specific religious concept and the constitution of the USA says that we do base legislation on religion.

    > 3. In your opinion, should gay marriage be legalized in the United
    > States?

    Yes, absolutely.

    > 4. Why has it only been legalized in two states?

    Because of very well organized and well funded campaigns against it by groups of people who are either bigoted or ignorant.

    > 5. What effect do you think gay marriage and gay parenting will
    > have/has had on "traditional" family life?

    It will free up the energy and money of all those who are spending time and wasting money campaigning against equal marriage rights for gays and lesbians to work on issues of real importance such as world hunger, homelessness, and finding peaceful endings to conflicts.

    > 6. Would the legalization of gay marriage in other states solidify the
    > institution of gay adoption?

    I hope so.

    > Thank you so much for your time! I hope you can e-mail me back
    > by tomorrow (Thursday). If not, there is not much of a point in
    > responding. :)

    You are very welcome. I hope this is what you needed.

    For further more information, go to

  4. Thanks for sharing, Gabi.

    If I had gotten this email from the high school student, I would probably have included the arguments you make as well as other arguments - including the opinions of many LGBTQ people who are critical of the current discourse around gay marriage. I would assume that, as a high schooler, he could handle some nuance in his paper, especially if that nuance reflected the diversity of LGBTQ people in the U.S.

    I often wonder: What if it's true that gay people getting married would irrevocably change the institution of marriage? Because, frankly... I think it might.


  5. What about the diversity of straight people? The 'institution' of marriage doesn't mean the same thing for everyone when the partner is the other gender either.

    Legal/civil rights for same sex couples should be able to have the word 'marriage' associated with their bond because marriage is a civil institution. There are straight couples who marry in a commitment that has nothing to do with religion, and they have rights at federal level that state civil union laws don't provide.

  6. I disagree - I think marriage is a fundamentally religious institution, through and through. For straight and queer couples alike, in order to uphold our nation's supposed "separation of church and state", we should be pushing to separate legal rights from marriage as much as possible.

  7. Thanks for sharing this post!!!

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