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The Difference between Gay Marriage and Civil Unions

by Kathy Belge May 4, 2023

You hear the politicians saying it all the time: "I support civil unions, but not gay marriage." What exactly does this mean? Some even say they support equal rights  for gays and lesbians, but not gay marriage. Is this possible? And why do gays and lesbians want marriage so badly when they can have civil unions?

First of all, What is Marriage? When people marry, they tend to do so for reasons of love and commitment. But marriage is also a legal status, which comes with  rights and responsibilities. Marriage establishes a legal kinship between you and your spouse. It is a relationship that is recognized across cultures, countries  and religions.

What is a Civil Union?

Civil unions and domestic partnerships exist in only a handful of places like New Jersey, Washington and Oregon. Vermont was the first state to create civil unions in  2000 to provide legal protections to gays and lesbians in that state because gay marriage was not an option. The protections did not extend beyond the border of  Vermont and no federal protections are included with a civil union. Civil unions offer some of the same rights and responsibilities as marriage, but only on a state  level.

What about domestic partnership? Some states and municipalities have domestic partnership registries, but no domestic partnership law is the same. Some, like  Oregon's domestic partnership law, come with many rights and responsibilities. Others offer very few benefits to the couple.

What are some of the differences between Civil Unions and Gay Marriage?

Recognition in other states: Even though each state has its own laws around marriage, if someone is married in one state and moves to another, their marriage is  legally recognized. For example, Oregon marriage law applies to people 17 and over. In Washington state, the couple must be 18 to wed. However, Washington will recognize the marriage of two 17 year olds from Oregon who move there. This is not the case with civil unions and domestic partnerships. If someone has a  domestic partnership, that union is recognized by some states and not others. Some states have even ruled that they do not have to recognize civil unions performed  in other states because their states have no such legal category. As gay marriages become legal in other states, this status may change. 


A United States citizen who is married can sponsor his or her non-American opposite-sex spouse for immigration into this country. Those with civil unions have no  such privilege. Even legally married gay and lesbian couples cannot sponsor their spouses for immigration because of the Defense of Marriage (DOMA) law.


Civil unions are not recognized by the federal government, so couples would not be able to file joint-tax returns or be eligible for tax breaks or protections the  government affords to married couples. Again, because of DOMA, same-sex couples have to file single on their federal tax returns.


The General Accounting Office in 1997 released a list of 1,049 benefits and protections available to heterosexual married couples. These benefits range from federal  benefits, such as survivor benefits through Social Security, sick leave to care for an ailing partner, tax breaks, veteran's benefits and insurance breaks. They also  include things like family discounts, obtaining family insurance through your employer, visiting your spouse in the hospital and making medical decisions if your  partner is unable to. Civil unions protect some of these rights, but not all of them.

But can't a lawyer set all this up for gay and lesbian couples?

No. A lawyer can set up some things like durable power of attorney, wills and medical power of attorney. There are several problems with this however: 

  1. It costs thousands of dollars in legal fees. A simple marriage license which usually costs under $100, would cover all the same rights and benefits.
  2. Any of these can be challenged in court. As a matter of fact, more wills are challenged than not. In the case of wills, legal spouses always have more legal  power than any other family member.
  3. Marriage laws are universal. If someone's husband or wife is injured in an accident, all you need to do is show up and say you're his or her spouse. You will not  be questioned. If you show up at the hospital with your legal paperwork, the employees may not know what to do with you. If you simply say, "He's my  husband," you will immediately be taken to your spouse's side.

Defense of Marriage Law

Even with lesbian and gay marriages being performed and recognized in some states, the Federal Defense of Marriage Law prohibits the federal government from  recognizing gay and lesbian relationships. This puts gay and lesbian couples who are married in a legal limbo. How do they file their tax returns? Do they have to pay  the tax on their partner's health insurance? How do they fill out legal and other forms, single or married? 

Civil unions create a separate and unequal status for some of America's citizens. The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial court ruled that creating a separate class for  gay and lesbian citizens is not permissible and that is why they have voted that only marriage equals marriage. The precedent was set with Brown v. The Board of  Education regarding segregation in public education. Ironically, Massachusetts's marriage law went into effect on the 50th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education.

The United States Constitution guarantees equality for all. As you can see, marriage and civil unions are not the same. Creating equal access to marriage is the only  fair way to ensure equality for gay and straight couples alike.

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