Brooklynite offers some thoughts on what civil unions laws in the US will mean for the common language usage of “married”.
Two years after the decision: “My friend Kyle got married last weekend.” “What? I thought he was gay?” “Oh, yeah. It was a civil union ceremony. But you know what I mean.”
Four years after the decision: “My friend Kyle got married last weekend.” “Well, technically, since he’s gay, it’s a civil union.” “Thanks so much, Professor Annoying.”
Six years after the decision: “My friend Kyle got married last weekend.” “What, again?”
I would think the language shift would be even faster here in Australia, as we don’t have such a large proportion of the population that are loud and proud social conservatives. Our law already refers to cohabiting heterosexual couples as de facto marriage partners, and although I remember a time (not long after the law was passed) when it was not uncommon to be introduced to someone as “Lisa’s de facto”, I can’t remember the last time that happened. For a while “partner” was ostentatiously used for cohabitants, but these days the usage lines have blurred, so that now in Sydney one has no idea when introduced to Bill’s “partner” or “wife” whether a marriage certificate is involved or not.
One of my siblings was committedly cohabiting and eventually coparenting for 16 years in all, and once the first child arrived they referred to each other as husband and wife. They never explained to me why they chose to change their word usage, but presumably they felt more strongly committed to the partnership and since they hadn’t gone through a public ceremony, why not make a ritual change in title to mark a significant change in their relationship?
It led me to some difficulties a few years ago now, though. A friend of mine had been cohabiting with an off-on romantic partner, and we went around for afternoon tea and suddenly “husband” and “wife” were being dropped into the conversation. With my sibling’s experience in mind, I didn’t suddenly start gushing “Sqeeeeeee! You got married?” which I (several months) later found had was what the revelation had been intended to inspire.
We were apparently one of the few friends whom they were willing to (attempt to) tell about the wedding, because the timing was inspired by visa considerations and was a very small registry office ceremony, with the idea that in time they would have a big friends and family function for a renewal of vows when all the stars were in their proper alignment. As it happens, they’re not together any more, so the “proper” wedding party thing never happened.
The point of my digression? The social conservatives are right to note that broadening the legal scope of recognised partnership arrangements beyond the traditional religiously-inspired heterosexual marriage will lead to some confusion of terms and titles for partners/spouses. Where they’re wrong is in thinking that this is going to create a huge problem.
My confusion with my friend could easily have been avoided with a simple declaration of “we got married last month” instead of trying to do a stealth announcement. It had nothing to do with some legal entitlement to the words “husband” and “wife”. People who don’t have a legal certificate are still going to call each other “husband and wife”, just as couples “living in sin” have done for centuries.
Whether marriage remains confined to its traditional heterosexual coupledom or civil unions endowing spousal rights are created and extended to homosexual couples, the appropriation of the traditional words by people outside the legally endorsed framework will continue.
As my fried Oddprofessor noted, the state has never been the one conferring sanctity on marriages anyway. The State has always only been in the business of enforcing the civil contract side of marriage.
In some countries the division is more explicit – you must go to the civil registry to get legally married whether you have a wedding ceremony in a church or not. This largely came about in Europe due to the Reformation and Counter-Reformation, as there was a time when the Catholic Church wasn’t recognising Protestant marriages and vice versa. There’s a very amusing story by Nancy Mitford called The Blessing where a crucial plot point hinges on an English girl marrying a French man civilly but not religiously, and how this opens up the possibility for him of divorce (because the Catholic Church’s attitude regarding divorce at the time was that only religious marriages counted regarding the rules against remarriage).
For those who believe in the sanctity of marriage, it is the blessing of the church that confers it, not the machinery of the State. Therefore extending civil unions conferring spousal rights to same-sex couples cannot logically detract from the sanctity of church-blessed unions.
Of course, arguments against same-sex unions are emotional, not logical.