Rather than, say, distinguish between civil and sacramental marriage, or between marriage and civil union, IOZ suggests that the government get out of the marriage/union business altogether. It’s an attractive idea, though it seems to me that there are some enforceable rights associated with marriage that would need to take some other form. Presumably many property-related matters could be handled by contract. What else?
A few days ago a friend of mine expressed the not-uncommon view that rather than advocating for gay marriage, we should fight to “get the government out of the marriage business.” I agreed. Yes, he mused, what we really need are universally available civil unions.
This is the moderately more radical position of some gay activists who see in the fight for access to civil marriage an unfortunate kind of assimilationism, an attempt to gain access to one of the very institutions of bourgeois, heteronormative, and patriarchal oppression that have for so long stood in the way of real liberation, and yet many of these same activists will then quickly turn to the benefits of civil unions, marriages in all but name really, made available to all.
But it seems to me that if you advocate for civil unions, you accept by implication that the government does have a compelling interest in the private social and economic arrangements of its citizens, because however such unions might be styled, they will in the end provide benefits and privileges to people in certain types of relationships not available to others, and will moreover continue to privilege some fairly traditional familial norms of cohabitation and economic interdependence over, for instance, living a single life.
And if you accept that the government has such an interest, then you accept the government’s right to discriminate between those relationships which do or do not live up that interest, which are or are not in the best interests of a stable, moral, sustainable society.
The real radical position is neither that the government should let gays marry nor that it should transform civil marriage into civil unions to avoid the trouble of terminology. It is instead that the government should get out of the marriage business altogether, and convey no additional privileges (nor duties nor obligations) on anyone for any kind of relationship or domestic arrangement.