Politics & Policy

What’S So Civil About Civil Unions?

Conservatives can win the debate on gay marriage.

A banner headline in the Boston Globe last week was, “Lawmakers Eye Civil Union Provision.” The Massachusetts legislature is soon to decide whether to advance a proposed Defense of Marriage Amendment in a compromise form that would allow gay couples civil unions instead of marriage. At issue is whether the amendment proposed by state representative Philip Travis has to be watered down to gain the votes it needs to pass at the constitutional convention that opened last week and resumes in March.

The political temperature is rising in Massachusetts in a drama that may well be replayed in other states as well as in this year’s presidential election (including California, if San Francisco’s recent exercise in civil disobedience, allowing gay couples to “marry” is any indication). The anti-gay-marriage group Let the People Vote is running advertisements against legislators who support gay marriage. House speaker Thomas Finneran is weighing a decision to defy the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court by promoting a bill to prohibit the issuance of same-sex-marriage licenses. And even the Boston Globe is finally taking note of critics, such as Princeton University Professor Jeffrey Satinover and Amherst College Professor Hadley Arkes, who have been pressing the point that the establishment of gay marriage will lead the way to further developments such as polygamy.

Where is the sensible moral and political ground on these matters? There is clearly a potential rift between conservatives who oppose both gay marriage and civil unions, and those who wish to concentrate on prohibiting gay marriage, more or less conceding on civil unions. The debate over the Federal Marriage Amendment is drawing some conservatives to the position that, in order to build a coalition in support of the amendment, the issue of civil unions should be left to the states. But here in Massachusetts we do not have the option of putting off that day of reckoning. Should the state constitutional convention strike for the compromise? I am edging the other way. I don’t think enacting civil-unions laws will prevent the kinds of damage that gay marriage itself would inflict on our society. The unhappy social consequences would be the same either way.

Stanley Kurtz’s analysis of how gay civil unions in Scandinavian countries have contributed to the decline of heterosexual marriage and the rise of out-of-wedlock births ought to be the foundation of further discussion of these matters. Civil unions in Scandinavia came in the wake of social developments that had already weakened marriage but they added decisive new elements: a final sundering of the connection between “marriage” and having children, and a demoralization of the old institutional supporters of marriage, including many of the churches.

Kurtz has given us a careful prying apart of the many layers of the Scandinavian reality. It is not that, one day, the Scandinavian governments enacted civil-unions laws and the next day heterosexual marriage collapsed. But if we follow Kurtz through his account piece by piece, civil unions emerge as a distinctive force with their own path of social consequences. The Scandinavian countries, in effect, have run an experiment in which they have taken to its logical extreme the idea of the British sociologist Anthony Giddens that modern marriage is simply about elective companionship. If that is all marriage is, why get married? The Swedes, the Danes, and the Norwegians can’t seem to think of any compelling reason. The Scandinavian gay civil-unions laws distinguish civil unions from marriage in respect to a handful of rights, such as access to artificial insemination. The Vermont version of civil unions eliminates even those distinctions and offers in effect the definitive declaration by the state that nothing–absolutely nothing–distinguishes random sexual coupling from official marriage.

These Scandinavian laws are primarily symbolic since not many Scandinavian gays actually get civil-unionized, but that’s not to say that such laws are irrelevant. Culture, as we anthropologists are wont to say, is comprised of symbols. Change the symbols and you change the culture.


While I admire Kurtz’s willingness to spend many months sifting through demographic statistics and getting obscure sociological articles translated from Danish and Norwegian, I have been thinking about peoples more remote from traditional Western institutions. On the north coast of Australia in the area known as Arnhem Land live several thousand Australian aborigines. Historically they lacked a collective name for themselves and anthropologists supplied the lack with various terms: the Murngin, the Wulamba, the Miwuyt, and most recently the Yolngu. They made news in the 1970s by successfully suing the Australian government over the appropriation of their land for bauxite mines. Their rich tradition of bark cloth painting has now involved them in the international art market. But they are probably still best known in anthropological circles for their remarkable marriage system.

The basic Miwuyt marriage rule is that a man should marry his mother’s mother’s brother’s daughter’s daughter (MMBDD). When I teach this to my anthropology students, the inevitable first question is, “What if he doesn’t have one?” But, of course, he always does. The Miwuyt know perfectly well how to operate their marriage system so that it does what they want it to. Or rather, the older Miwuyt men know how to operate the system–for it turns out that the polygamous Miwuyt elders manage to collect numerous brides. The key is a certain flexibility in classifying relatives as MMBDDs even if they are not literally so. Some men have upwards of ten wives, many of whom are much younger than their husbands. Anthropologists have characterized the system as a kind of gerontocracy.

As far as I know, gay marriage and civil unions aren’t anywhere in the Miwuyt scheme of things. The Miwuyt, however, serve as an excellent example of the difference between abstract rules governing marriage (“Marry your MMBDD.”) and social realities. And recognition of that difference seems sorely lacking in much of the debate over gay marriage and civil unions.

When the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court decided on November 18 that the state is obligated to extend the benefits of marriage to gay and lesbians couples, it framed the matter wholly as a set of abstract rights. To a large extent the ensuing debate has pitted defenders of traditional marriage against champions of a new “civil right.” The champions of gay marriage, in other words, have immediate access to the powerful ideal and rhetoric of human equality, while the defenders of traditional marriage are equipped mainly with an assortment of religious arguments, appeals to tradition, worries about possible side effects like the rise of polygamy, and a general but vague apprehension that is all too easily caricatured by gay rights proponents as mere prejudice.

It is not prejudice at all. That apprehension is an inarticulate insight that gay marriage or civil unions would, in some deep sense, transform marriage for everyone. But exactly how? The Miwuyt, in far-away Arnhem Land, offer a clue. Marriage for the Miwuyt involves complicated reciprocities of clans and generations, organized into a “section” system that has baffled anthropologists for 70 years, along with the prescription of marrying one’s MMBDD. But draw back from the precise details and it is plain enough that the system works to benefit the older males and reinforce their dominance over women and younger males.

Likewise, the “civil-rights” issue mainly obscures what gay marriage (and civil unions) would do. The gay-marriage movement isn’t really about gay marriage at all. Stable gay and lesbian couples already exist and with only a little inconvenience can arrange for themselves virtually all the “rights” and conveniences that come with marriage. Rather the gay-marriage debate is fundamentally about making homosexual behavior a fully accepted and legitimate part of American life. Gay marriage, like civil unions in Scandinavia, is a symbolic device aimed at transforming this aspect of our culture.

Having to argue this out in the form of a debate on “gay marriage” may be a good thing, in that at least it frames the matter of re-valuing homosexuality as a specific issue. But it is, of course, the battleground and the timing chosen by the Left. Homosexuality has already won cultural approval in the mass media from television shows to the nuptial announcements in the New York Times, and in many other contexts, including many churches. The gay-marriage debate is, in that sense, intended as the final battle, after which full normalization of homosexuality will be a matter of cleaning up some details.

And I don’t believe conservatives have yet devised a winning defense. Certainly not if we begin with a preemptive surrender on “civil unions.” To offer civil unions as the compromise position is, in effect, to concede that the debate really is about civil rights rather than an aggressive campaign to transform the culture by replacing the traditional family as the cornerstone of social order with an amorphous category of sexual liaisons. Eliminate the normative family in the U.S., and who benefits? The Scandinavian situation offers a pretty good clue. Junk the family and its functions will necessarily be transferred to the state: to state day-care centers, welfare bureaucracies, and government agencies. But as long as we continue to debate gay marriage on the grounds preferred by the Left–as a civil-rights issue–the larger assault on the traditional family anchored on the sexual, emotional, and practical complementarity of one man and one woman will remain invisible.


Conservatives at this juncture seem faced with a choice of strategies: whether to emphasize the recklessness of the proponents of gay marriage in their willingness to jeopardize traditional marriage for what appears to be, at best, a modest social gain; or whether to emphasize the much larger cultural question of the place of homosexuality in our society. The public and political debate, though limited, has been carried on by people like Maggie Gallagher and Stanley Kurtz, almost entirely within the frame of the former position, i.e., “We need to defend marriage.” I agree, we do, and Gallagher and Kurtz have made excellent arguments. But I somehow doubt that their arguments are connecting with as a large a public as they hope. Can the other argument (“We should not allow marriage to be used to give full legitimacy to homosexuality.”) do better? Can we make both arguments?

Recently, about 4,000 people rallied on the Boston Common in opposition to gay marriage. I talked afterwards to one of the protesters who seemed rather discouraged. He noted that, as he has gone around and talked to people in the state about the issue, he has found many who are diffident. They have essentially bought the line, “Why should I care? If two gay people get married, how does that hurt me?” In truth, it probably wouldn’t. The destructive consequences would fall mainly on the young and the vulnerable who would grow up in a society without the bulwark of traditional marriage protecting them against the excesses of their own immature appetites and the rapacious desire of older males ever eager to expand the zone of sexual permissiveness.

But how do we get that message across? An acquaintance, David Boyajian, who is active in the Massachusetts fight against gay marriage, observed that civil unions are winning support in the polls and from pundits as the “third way” between gay marriage and outright prohibition. Frame an issue as a three-way choice, he observes, and the middle term almost automatically gets adopted as the moderate, sensible choice. He jests: “Do you favor executing hanging ALL, SOME, or NONE of the people who object to gay marriage?”

ALL: 23%

Some: 42%

None: 25%

But the Boyajian Principle seems sound. It is not so hard to imagine the poll that will ask, “Do you think polygamy should be prohibited, optional, or mandatory?” But perhaps this game can be turned around. I think we should press for a poll on a question such as, “Should civil unions be available to same-sex couples, organized labor, or Australian marsupials?”

Jesting with calamity has some merit, but it probably won’t change the tenor of the debate. As to whether we should cut our losses by accepting civil unions as a step short of gay marriage, I take counsel from Michel De Montaigne. In his essay “On Vain and Cunning Devices,” Montaigne warns against the illusion that the middling way is always safest. Rather the middle ground is the natural home of “erroneous opinions” and men who “bring disturbances to the world.” I think we are best off facing the harder question squarely. To be generous in spirit and worthy as a culture, do we really need to abandon our commitment to traditional marriage? That’s where gay marriage–and civil unions too–will inexorably take us.

Peter Wood, a professor of anthropology at Boston University, is the author of Diversity: The Invention of A Concept.


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