|Same-sex marriage advocates who
lost two major court cases last month will have to rethink their
approach to secure equal rights for gay and lesbian couples.
The first setback came when New
York's highest court ruled that the state constitution does not
require the government to open up the institution of marriage to
same-sex couples. Next came a similar ruling by the
Supreme Court of Washington state.
Then, just when pro-marriage
advocates were trying to regain their balance, a formal
statement was issued by a large group of gay and lesbian
lawyers, professors, and political activists. Issued on
July 26, 2006, the statement is entitled "Beyond Same-Sex
Marriage: A New Strategic Vision for All Our Families and
it urges those in leadership positions in the gay and lesbian
rights movement to look "beyond marriage" in their quest for
More than 250 signers of the
manifesto -- many well known and well respected in equal rights
circles -- say they are offering "a new vision for securing
governmental and private institutional recognition of diverse
kinds of partnerships, households, kinship relationships and
families." In so doing, they seek to "move beyond the narrow
confines of marriage politics as they exist in the United States
relationships, and households struggling for stability and
economic security will be helped by separating basic forms of
legal and economic recognition from the requirement of marital
and conjugal relationship," the statement proclaims.
The policy statement seeks to
broaden the struggle for equal rights to include blood relatives
who live together as a family unit, or seniors who form a loving
partnership but who choose not to marry for economic reasons, or
best friends who share a household on a long-term basis.
Whether these relationships are gay, straight, bisexual, or
nonsexual should be irrelevant.
Legalizing same-sex marriage is
one approach that will help a segment of the gay and lesbian
community who want to form a legal marriage contract. But
there are many gays and lesbians who would not marry even if it
were legal to do so. Should they be denied equal rights
because they would prefer to form a "domestic partnership"
rather than marry?
The same-sex marriage movement,
in its quest to make all roads lead to legalized gay marriage,
has had an unfortunate effect of distorting a relatively new
secular institution which has been called "domestic
partnership." Prior to the big push for gay marriage in
the mid-1990s, domestic partnership was almost uniformly
considered to be a broad family-oriented concept which included
same-sex and opposite-sex couples who wanted official
recognition of their primary family relationship.
In the wake of litigation in
Hawaii and elsewhere seeking judicial recognition of same-sex
marriage, many political activists tried to turn domestic
partnership into a stepping stone for gay marriage rather than
allowing it to be a legal relationship that would stand on its
Their first major victory was in
California, where the marriage advocates switched support from
inclusive domestic partnership legislation to domestic
partnership for same-sex couples only. I and a few others fought
them on this and, in the end, only partially succeeded in
keeping domestic partnership open to heterosexual couples.
Governor Gray Davis reluctantly agreed that domestic partnership
would include heterosexual couples over the age of 62 in
addition to same-sex couples of any adult age.
But my proposal to allow blood
relatives to secure domestic partnership rights got nowhere.
Most gay rights advocates wanted domestic partnership to look as
much like marriage as possible. Since blood relatives are
excluded from marriage, they insisted that blood relatives be
excluded from domestic partnership.
An alternative approach was used
in the District of Columbia. A law passed by the district
council, and given approval by Congress and President George W.
allows any two adults, including blood relatives, to register as
domestic partners and gain various benefits as a result.
New Jersey decided to follow the
California model which prohibits blood relatives and
heterosexual couples under the age of 62 from registering as
domestic partners. The City of Salt Lake, Utah, followed
the more inclusive approach of the District of Columbia when it
recently broadened the city's employee benefits program.
So the release of the "Beyond
Marriage" statement is well timed. Equal rights advocates
have some major decisions to make as they try to find remedies
for a wide range of inequities experienced by unmarried
employees, consumers, and taxpayers.
I, for one, hope that such
strategies look "beyond marriage" and focus at least as much
time and energy on passing inclusive domestic partnership laws
and broadening the definition of "family" in public policies and
Unmarried America 2006
Thomas F. Coleman, Executive Director of Unmarried America, is an
attorney with 33 years of experience in singles' rights, family
diversity, domestic partner benefits, and marital status discrimination.
Each week he adds a new commentary to Column One: Eye on Unmarried
firstname.lastname@example.org. Unmarried America is a nonprofit
information service for unmarried employees, consumers, taxpayers, and