In this country, during the last decades of the twentieth century, thousands of lesbians married other women and thousands of gay men married other men. Many of these couples recited traditional vows in churches and synagogues. Others have pledged to each other in their own backyards in words that they wrote themselves. But not one of these thousands of solemn occasions was recognized as creating a legally valid marriage. In the United States, each state has its own statute defining who can marry, and as far as the states were concerned, these couples were playing dress up. One state has now made an abrupt change. Just before this book went to press, Vermont's legislature, prodded by a decision of the state Supreme Court, enacted a statute that permits same-sex couples to enter into "civil unions" and obtain all the legal benefits and burdens of marriage except the name. It is, however, too soon to know whether or when other states will create similar forms of unions or whether Vermont will eventually take the final step and call civil unions "marriage."
Thus, two quite different social histories might be written about this same period. One is of the growth in the numbers of same-sex weddings and commitment ceremonies performed in the United States, as well as the increase in the social acceptance for such unions by gay people, by their constructed and their biological families and by the media. That encouraging story will not be told here. The story here is the history of the intermittent and much less successful efforts to secure legal recognition of same-sex marriage in the United States. This is a story in progress, one that may well have a happy ending. It has some heroes-some courageous couples who have put themselves on the line, some talented advocates who always believe that victory is near, and the justices of two state supreme courts who went out on a limb. Overall, however, it is a story of repeated judicial and political defeats and of tension among gay activists and between national and local groups.
A second and closely related story is also one in progress. It is the more gratifying story of the movement to secure legal recognition of lesbian and gaymale couple relationships in ways other than marriage, the history of efforts to obtain "domestic partnership." In Hawaii today, legal same-sex marriage has been rejected, but the legislature now permits same-sex couples to register their relationship and secure many of the benefits that married couples enjoy. Hundreds of corporations, municipalities, and universities now provide health and other benefits to the same-sex partners of their employees. Whatever the final outcome of the story of the efforts to obtain legal recognition of same-sex marriage, it will inevitably be intertwined with the story of domestic partnership. Indeed, Vermont created civil union as the legal equivalent of marriage, but civil union can, of course, be seen as the ultimate form of domestic partnership.
Publication Information & Recommended Citation
Chambers, David L. "Couples: Marriage, Civil Union, and Domestic Partnership." In Creating Change: Sexuality, Public Policy, and Civil Rights, edited by J. D'Emilio et al., 281-304. New York: St. Martin's Press, 2000.