Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Why Obama sticks with civil unions

August 24, 2010

WITH regard to gay marriage, I think I may occupy an even narrower and perhaps more absurd slice of intellectual terrain than Barack Obama does (in Richard Just's characterisation). I think the social institutions in which people carry out reproductive and sexual activity are pretty historically fluid, and have an often ambiguous relationship to ideas about justice. I can imagine a just, tolerant, unprejudiced and sexually-liberated society that has separate legal institutions categorising committed homosexual and heterosexual relationships. When a democratic nation in Europe or South America decides to establish domestic partnerships with full civil rights for gay couples, rather than calling them "marriages", I don't necessarily think that country is less fully egalitarian than one that allows gays to marry; I simply think that's the way they do it over there. Within Europe, I think gay marriage was institutionalised first in the Netherlands, while Scandinavian countries stuck with civil unions for a while, in large measure because the Netherlands is more conservative, and large segments of Dutch society still accord a semi-sacralised premium to the word "marriage" which doesn't obtain so strongly in Scandinavia. In America, too, I think the reason gay marriage displaced civil unions as a progressive political goal is partly down to the conservatism of American society. I think the reasons why we're pushing for gay marriage rather than civil unions are not unrelated to the reasons why our money is still all-green and we can't seem to get rid of the penny or get a dollar coin circulating.