question of the weekend: What is the difference between “gay marriage” and “civil union”?

With the judicial knockdown of California’s Proposition 8 this week — the law tried to redefine marriage as the union between one man and one woman only, in an attempt to deny civil marriage to gays and lesbians — we’re getting some hilarious responses from those who oppose the right of certain citizens to marry. Like from serial adulterer Newt Gingrich, who sees an “outrageous disrespect” in the new ruling toward the institution of marriage as between one man and one woman. (Perhaps he meant to say that marriage is only proper if it is between one man and one woman, and then that same man and another woman, and then that same man and a third woman, and so on.)

We’re also starting to hear again how some people, from politicians to ordinary citizens, support “civil unions” for gays and lesbians but they certainly do not support “gay marriage.” I always wonder what the hell these people are talking about. What is the difference between “gay marriage” and “civil union”?
I’m not talking about the legal differences between marriage and civil unionthere are real differences, most of which concern the fact that civil unions are matters of state law, and as such as not able to confer all the federal benefits of marriage. I mean, What do these people think they’re saying? I have never heard a rationale for supporting “civil unions” but not “gay marriage” that didn’t sound like this:

Some little voice in the back of my head tells me it’s wrong to deny gays and lesbians the same rights and benefits that come with marriage. But a louder voice in my head keeps shouting about how icky it is to think about two guys getting nasty together. (Two chicks might be okay, I guess, but only if I get to watch.) So we need to find some way to let gays get married and still pretend that that’s not what we’re doing.

What else could it be? Is there a reasonable explanation for supporting “civil unions” but not “gay marriage” that I don’t see?

Of course, the real solution for this problem would be for the government to get out of the business of rewarding marriage in the first place. Why should I have to pay higher taxes just because I’m single? Almost all of the other benefits that marriage now conveys — from the ability to make health-care decisions for a spouse to inheritance rights and parenting, and so on — can already be legally assigned to anyone you want to assign these rights to (via wills, health-care proxies, adoptions, powers-of-attorney, and such). But the main reason so many people seem to feel the need to create a bizarre dichotomy in their heads between “marriage” and “civil union” is because they insist that marriage is “sacred”… but if that’s the case, then what business is it of a supposedly secular government to reward something that is religious in nature? It is also already the case that many ministers and other religious celebrants will marry gays and lesbians in religious ceremonies, so some gays and lesbians are actually already married in the sense that those who believe that marriage is “sacred” would (or should) recoginze. How can anyone say these couples aren’t married if you say you believe in all that “in the eyes of God” stuff?

I’m fascinated — in an appalled way — by the justifications people seem to invent for their own bigotries, and so they can pretend to themselves that they’re not bigots.

And when we’re done with this, perhaps someone can explain how gay marriage undermines hetero marriage…

(If you have a suggestion for a QOTD/QOTW, feel free to email me. Responses to this QOTW sent by email will be ignored; please post your responses here.)

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