For Some, Civil Unions Gain Second-Class Stigma In the three years since gay marriage became a reality in Massachusetts, interest in — and enthusiasm for — civil unions has dropped off sharply in the four states that allow them. Many gay couples now view civil unions as an unacceptable substitute for marriage.
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For Some, Civil Unions Gain Second-Class Stigma

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For Some, Civil Unions Gain Second-Class Stigma

For Some, Civil Unions Gain Second-Class Stigma

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Michele Norris.

ANDREA SEABROOK, host:

And I'm Andrea Seabrook.

In Massachusetts today, gay and lesbian couples are celebrating the third anniversary of gay marriage. Massachusetts is still the only state where same-sex marriage is legal. Wait a minute, you're thinking what about Vermont, New Hampshire, New Jersey and Connecticut. Well, they all allow civil unions. They grant gays and lesbians all the rights of marriage without the name. That's not enough for many gay couples.

NPR's Tovia Smith reports that civil unions are often spurned as poor substitutes for the real thing.

TOVIA SMITH: Norman Garrick and James Hanley still remember where they were in 2005 when they first heard that Connecticut had passed a civil union law. Garrick, who is teaching at the University of Connecticut called Hanley at the same theater where the two had met 19 years before.

Professor NORMAN GARRICK (University of Connecticut): I mean it was an extraordinary thing that happened and it was really something to celebrate.

SMITH: But over time, Hanley says their feelings changed. They watched couples in Massachusetts marrying and the idea that Connecticut had created this parallel status for gays and lesbians really started to sting.

Mr. JAMES HANLEY: It's kind of like creating, you know, well, don't worry; the water at the fountain is just the same, it comes from the same pipe but you just go over here. It's a second-class citizenship and you cannot separate people like that. It's a matter of equality.

SMITH: Hanley and Garrick are among a growing number of same-sex couples refusing a civil union on principle. Anne Stanback, a gay marriage advocate, says interest in civil unions has been weak in Connecticut. Just over 500 couples got civil unions in the first six weeks, she says, compared to 3,000 who got married in the same amount of time in Massachusetts.

Ms. ANNE STANBACK (Executive Director, Love Makes a Family): The world changed and the bar was raised and I think it's hard to be satisfied with second best when your neighbor has the real thing.

SMITH: The numbers in Vermont tell a similar story. Interest was high when civil unions started in 2000. But the year that gay marriage became legal in Massachusetts, the number of couples getting civil unions in Vermont dropped by half.

And in New Jersey, where civil unions passed just about three months ago, advocates say the response has been less than enthusiastic.

Mr. STEVEN GOLDSTEIN (Director, Garden State Equality): The label of civil union makes me want to throw up.

SMITH: Steven Goldstein is head of the New Jersey group advocating for gay marriage. He says he's already got dozens of complaints that employers and insurers don't want to recognize civil unions.

Mr. GOLDSTEIN: Every day we get calls from couples who are in tears. They said we knew civil unions weren't marriage but we thought we would at least get some basic protections. And now, these couples are finding out that contraptions short of marriage don't work in the real world - only marriage, equality is equality.

SMITH: But others in the gay community take a more pragmatic approach: civil unions may not be perfect, but it sends a really bad message, they say, when same-sex couples pass up the chance to get all the same legal rights and protections that marriage would bring.

Mr. STEVE SWAYNE (Associate Professor, Music, Dartmouth College): I'm saying that we need to celebrate it. Let's not get our panties all in a wad about the name that we call this thing.

SMITH: Steve Swayne is a music professor at Dartmouth College. He says he and his partner got a civil union in Vermont because the rights were too important to pass up. There's standing on principle, Swayne says, and then there's cutting off your nose to spite your face.

Mr. SWAYNE: For me, as a black man, the idea of - in certain ways is akin to somebody saying well, because black people in the 1930s and '40s couldn't get in to the top schools, they're not going to get educated. I don't think anybody in their right mind would suggest that. We got our education.

Mr. HANLEY: Oh yes, okay. We were showing off the rings there.

Mr. GARRICK: See the rings there...

SMITH: Poring over a photo album at their home in Connecticut, James Hanley and Norman Garrick say they are holding out for marriage because it's about dignity as much as legal rights. There's another reason too, as Garrick puts it, they've already celebrated when they exchanged rings on the Ponte Vecchio in Florence and when they registered as domestic partners in San Francisco.

The last thing they want to do now is hire caterers to celebrate a civil union only to find themselves reciting vows, yet again, if and when real marriage becomes available.

Mr. GARRICK: But you aren't at home with the times, you can't get married and feel excited about it.

SMITH: Connecticut's highest court is expected to rule soon on whether it's unconstitutional to give gays civil unions while everyone else gets marriage. Even opponents of gay marriage acknowledge the point. As one put it, civil unions really are marriage by another name, so fairness would dictate that they be called marriage. That's exactly why, he said, we oppose civil unions in the first place.

Tovia Smith, NPR News.

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