State of the Civil Union: On Illinois and Gay Divorce

Wednesday, the Illinois State Senate voted to legalize civil unions between same-sex partners. While this isn’t the same as actually passing the bill into law, Illinois’s governor has already declared that he’ll support the motion, and so it looks as though civil unions may be possible in the very near future for Illinois gays and lesbians.

For many, the news was welcome, but a little underwhelming. With talk of Prop 8 possibly foreshadowing an end to DOMA when it reaches the Supreme Court, civil unions pale in comparison to Marriage, the golden ring that many queers see as a major step in our journey to move out of second-class citizenhood and into being fully recognized humans. Even the news brief itself on the item is focused on what many hope is the next step:

“With this step in the right direction, Illinois rejected arguments against fair treatment for gay people and their loved ones and acknowledged that gay couples and families exist and have the same hopes and needs as other families,” [Evan Wolfson, executive director of Freedom to Marry, said].

Wolfson also urged lawmakers to follow in the footsteps of other states that have legalized gay marriage after first approving civil unions.

“Having now laid a good foundation with civil union, Illinois should move swiftly to finish the job, ending exclusion from marriage for committed couples seeking the same responsibilities, same respect, and same rules.”

How much should we be celebrating Illinois’s decision and how much should we be pushing for more? At a basic level, civil unions provide a certain degree of legal legitimacy and protection to your relationship, while marriage provides social recognition and, for some, religious significance. How much is it worth to us to have court documentation of our love?

Well, this article from HuffPo on gay divorce comes along at a convenient moment for those mulling over this question.

For some same-sex partners, the inability to legally marry relegates their break-up to the murky world of non-marital law, which often involves complex theories of equitable partition, implied contracts, and partnership law. It can also create serious problems around the parentage and custody of kids. See for more about those issues. And, even for those whose lives are covered by marital law (because they live in a recognition state and entered into a formal registration or marriage), the lack of federal recognition can create serious confusion or even blatant discrimination. There is no tax recognition of the spousal relationship, and so transfers of assets can trigger capital gains, income, or gift tax liabilities. The ERISA rules preclude the assignment of a pension or retirement benefit, which also can lead to additional taxation and enforcement problems for divorcing couples. Because of the legal complexities, fewer divorce lawyers know how to handle same-sex dissolutions, and so even finding a qualified lawyer can be a challenge.

While the Prop 8 trial made it clear that for those who want to marry their partner, domestic partnerships and civil unions just don’t cut it – the process of being “united” or “partnered” has been described as painfully anticlimactic, with poet Helen Zia observing that “we went to the same window where you get dog licenses” – they do serve a purpose.

As the above paragraph explains, DOMA is still a huge roadblock to all gay couples in the US, civil unions can be a small miracle if you ever do separate from your partner. It’s a depressing angle from which to look at a happy thing, but civil unions are one of the few tools we have in navigating the lawless netherworld of gay relationships.

There’s been a lot of bad news lately, and there’s been some good news too. Take this as you will. And take it further, because no matter what you think of Illinois or what Illinois thinks of you, we’re not done here yet.

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Originally from Boston, MA, Rachel now lives in the Midwest. Topics dear to her heart include bisexuality, The X-Files and tacos. Her favorite Ciara video is probably "Ride," but if you're only going to watch one, she recommends "Like A Boy." You can follow her on twitter and instagram.

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  1. I’m taking this as a baby step in the right direction. I mean, it’s more than we had before, even if it still isn’t enough! And considering the fact that our state went red (or at least purple) in the last election, I feel like it’s as much as we are going to be getting for a while. Plus, there was this which was kind of awesome.

    • Wow. What an amazing speech. It actually gave me chills. I wish i could articulate myself that well when discussing DOMA, prop 8 and gay marriage in general. Instead i just get all flustered and shut up. When i see someone defend us so wonderfully and passionately it makes me smile.

  2. can I just say that I totally <3 that picture of the elderly ladyloves with the sign? they are so cute!

  3. A civil-union is kind of like fat free ranch dressing. It mostly looks the same as real ranch dressing, and kind of tastes like it, but it’s definitely NOT ranch dressing. But it’s also way better than no ranch dressing.

  4. I have mixed feelings about this, but mostly i think, “maybe by the time we can get married in IL, I’ll actually have someone who wants to marry me.” maybe not, idk. but i’m hopeful :)

  5. Hi Rachel: Please note that for any bill to become law, it must be passed by the House of Representatives, the Illinois State Senate and then signed by the Governor (or allowed to go into effect by the Governor without a veto). Since Gov. Pat Quinn has indicated he will sign the bill (S.B. 1716 which passed the House (61-52) and the Senate (32-24)), Civil Unions will become the law of the Land of Lincoln with an effective date of July 1, 2011.

    The bill provides (among other things) that any (gay) marriage performed in another state (or Country) will qualify as a civil union for purposes of Illinois State law.

    So all Illinois gay and lesbian couples should go get married in Iowa and then come July 1, 2011 register that marriage with the State of Illinois through your local county clerk’s office. This approach will help if you move to another state that recognizes gay marriage like Iowa, Vermont, Connecticut, New Hampshire, Massachusetts or even Washington, D.C. and it will (eventually, I hope) be valid throughout the U.S. Your Iowa marriage will also be recognized if you travel (or move) to those countries around the world that recognize gay and lesbian couples, like Israel, Argentina, Canada, Spain, Belgium, Norway, the Netherlands, Iceland (brrr!), Sweden, Portugal and even some parts of Mexico.

    Iowa City has some of the nicest people helping out of state folks get married. So enjoy the road trip!

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  7. Question?

    As a totally and complete ignoramus on all things law like…

    Do these kinds of legislative wins help us at all when a gay marriage case makes it to the Supreme Court? I remember reading somewhere that the Supreme Court doesn’t like to be a leader in policy… does this help lay legal groundwork?

    Actually I now realize we are talking civil unions…not marriage.

    Now I have confused myself.

    Anyway, I assume Autostraddle can answer this question. Don’t you guys know everything? If not, don’t tell me…I would be crushed.

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