The Illinois legislature passed a civil unions bill earlier this week that gives same-sex couples all of the same rights the state accords opposite-married people. Medical access and decisions, inheritance, immunity from testifying, pension survivors benefits, the whole deal. And there was much rejoicing.
When it became apparent that the legislation would sail through Governor Pat Quinn's office, barely stopping on his desk long enough for him to scrawl his signature on the giddy bill, the what's-next discussion turned to whether civil unions will be a stepping stone to full marriage rights in Illinois or a final, second-class destination, although, absent changes to the federal DOMA, it looks like semantics at this point. As in, about the only change you could make to the Illinois civil unions to advance them into the "marriage" sphere is to go ahead and start using the word "marriage;" the state-level rights are in place--although whether insurance companies or benefit managers might try to be dicks about it like they did, for example, in New Jersey after that state enacted their own civil unions--remains to be seen.
However, what's next is something I didn't quite anticipate: straight people, and old straight people in particular, want in on the action.
While celebrated as a historic step forward for gay rights in Illinois, the new civil union bill that awaits Gov. Pat Quinn's signature also offers opportunities for heterosexual couples who don't want to wed but seek many of the legal protections of marriage.
Granted, this is likely to be a narrow swath of the population, but those who drafted the law felt it important to be inclusive, particularly given that the bill's intent was to open up rights that had long been denied to a demographic group.
"It just seemed wrong to me to write a law that would be discriminatory," said state Rep. Greg Harris, D-Chicago, the bill's chief sponsor in the House.
He said some senior citizens lobbied for the bill. Seniors with survivor's benefits from Social Security or a pension could lose that income if they remarry. A civil union allows them to keep that benefit while providing the same state-level rights as a marriage.
"If you go to a senior building, you'll find a lot of people who face this dilemma," Harris said. "They may be the largest single group of beneficiaries by number."
In other words, a demographic that (1) spent much of their lives benefiting from their (and their parents') ability to marry and (2) historically has opposed extending those same benefits to gay people now (3) want to keep the benefits they accrued by being in a state-sanctioned opposite-sex relationship while simultaneously (4) glomming onto benefits that are now being extended to people in same-sex relationships who historically have been denied the exact kind of financial security the oldsters are loathe to give up now that they've met someone new.
I understand why it is important that a law about inclusion appear to be as inclusive as possible, even including groups who, at first blush, do not seem to need the protections extended by the new law because they are already covered by existing laws. And I understand that some straight people don't want to get federally married for realz until equality is extended to everyone. That's lovely, y'all, really, thanks.
But it wears on my very last nerve when one of the loudest responses to this legislation is BUT WHAT ABOUT THE STRAIGHT PEOPLE. But what about the straight people who want this new, lesser-than status? What about the straight people who want health benefits without having to get married first? What about the straight people who don't want to give up a Social Security survivor's benefit?
Well, what about them? If you're in Illinois and you trip-trap down to the courthouse for a shiny new civil union because you've been going out with this guy for a few months and really need health insurance, well, surprise, when you decide to dump him after you land a job that gives you your own coverage, you're going to find that CUs don't just approximate marriage fairly well. The process of getting out of one also approximates divorce to a T. If you're in a CU, you're married without the feds and federal programs being involved. There is no advantage if you're a straight couple. And then there's this:
Courtney Greve, spokeswoman for Cook County Clerk David Orr, said the clerk's office gets weekly calls from heterosexual couples who don't want to marry but are interested in some sort of domestic partnership. Some, she said, are young couples facing a loss of health insurance, who want to wait to get married until they can plan a more elaborate wedding.
Yeah, fuck that. Civil unions, flawed as they are by being limited to state-level legislation, are still closer to the brass ring than anything in Illinois has been before. People have fought for this stuff for years and years. They fought for domestic partnerships and the small set of protections those brought. Now they finally won civil unions, the culmination of decades of struggle, and... young straight people want to use them as a stopgap measure until, you know, they can have the real wedding of their dreams, and old straight people want to use them as a double-ended scoop that gives them the benefits of both their former marriage and their new relationship.
Can we just have our nice thing, please? Or as nice a thing as we can get until civil marriage simply means civil marriage across the board?