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Civil Unions Suck

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When Democratic state rep. Dave Upthegrove, the two-term gay legislator representing SeaTac and Des Moines, noticed that his Dem colleagues were fielding the "gay-marriage question" on the campaign trail this year by proclaiming support for civil unions, he realized he had a problem on his hands. Upthegrove doesn't want civil unions for gays because civil unions don't carry the same rights as marriage licenses.

Unfortunately, civil unions may soon be the only option for gays. If the Washington State Supreme Court says 1998's Defense of Marriage Act is unconstitutional, negative public reaction is likely to send the issue to the legislature, where conservative lawmakers will shop a constitutional amendment that would ban gay marriage. Upthegrove is worried that the Republicans will woo enough Dems (constitutional amendments must pass by two-thirds in both houses) by adding a "friendly" caveat to the ban that says civil unions are okay. Upthegrove realized that he and his three gay colleagues in Olympia--Seattle-area reps Joe McDermott and Ed Murray, along with Vancouver rep Jim Moeller--needed to play a little queer eye for the (otherwise) straight legislature.

"Gay- and lesbian-friendly Dems think civil unions provide all the same benefits as marriage, but they don't," Upthegrove says. "Only a few years ago, I didn't know this either, but civil unions don't provide federal benefits and they aren't portable [to] other jurisdictions."

Upthegrove, who calls civil unions "separate and unequal," points out that because civil unions aren't respected in other jurisdictions, he couldn't sign off on medical procedures for his boyfriend if his boyfriend was injured in another state.

The list of inequities between marriage and civil unions continues: Civil unions don't allow couples to file joint federal tax returns. Nor do they grant federal perks like social security survivor benefits, sick leave to care for ailing partners, and tax and insurance breaks. Yes, a lawyer can write wills for gays and set up powers of attorney--but this costs thousands of dollars. A simple marriage license, which usually costs under $100, covers all this ground.

At Upthegrove's prompting, the four gay reps have divvied up the list of their Dem colleagues--particularly those up for reelection this year, who may be naively declaring support for civil unions on the campaign trail--and are arranging meetings to set them straight (or, more accurately, queer) about civil unions.

Educating just enough Dems so that Republicans can't attain two-thirds support for a constitutional amendment seems doable. But Upthegrove may have a bigger task: protecting ranks against a simple majority vote. After all, the state supreme court, like Vermont's, may immediately punt the issue to the legislature, asking it to square the conflict between DOMA and gay rights rather than declaring DOMA unconstitutional outright. Responding to this court directive, Republicans would only need a simple legislative majority to pass, say, a civil-unions compromise that outlaws gay marriage. Upthegrove wants Democrats to realize that "separate and unequal" is no compromise.

josh@thestranger.com

 

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