Civil Unions, pt. 1 of 3

My wife did a smashing job in her review, didn’t she?  Well, today I’m moving away from jumping the broom, moving a bit.  But I’m staying close still.

Earlier this year, Governor Quinn signed civil unions into Illinois law, and yesterday the law went into effect.  It is called the Illinois Religious Freedom Protection and Civil Unions Act.  From what I can tell a civil union will afford a person the same legal obligations, responsibilities, protections and benefits given to a person in a spousal relationship, stopping short of the ability to legally marry.  For many Illinois people in committed same-sex relationships this legislation is a splendid and welcome gift.  It’s a gift for heterosexual couples who have put off marrying for whatever reason as well.

There has been a good amount of fear across the country in the last decades about marriage and the need to preserve and protect marriage.  Much of that fear or, to be more charitable, concern has come from religious people.  People of faith, many of them Christian, have expressed and promoted their concerns.  As a professional religious person, I am naturally connected to these expressions.

I see three issues related to the new legislation in my state.  One is the connections that have been made between civil unions and the civil rights era.  A second is the issue of marriage itself, the preservation or detraction of the institution, the right to marry, and the like.  A third issue is the civil union itself, what it is, what it allows.

I’d like to think out loud about those three issues in the next few posts.  My reflection on the connection between the struggle for civil unions and the struggle for civil rights in this country is simple, almost boring.  I don’t think there is a relationship.

There are probably lines connecting the intentions of folks working and hoping for civil unions with the intentions and needs in the movement toward civil rights for people of color, particularly Black folks.  But Black people were discriminated against in legal forms, segregated against throughout the country because of their blackness.  The thread for them was historical and long and formulated by law, again, because of their racial identity.  That link was not present for people in Illinois seeking the passage of the Act for civil unions.  They weren’t discriminated against because of their ethnicity.  They did not receive the same protections as married couples, yes.  They were going without certain benefits, true.  But the absence of those protections weren’t inside the stream of four centuries of racism, discrimination, and segregation.

There are Black folks who were denied, for all practical purposes, spousal rights because they cannot be legally married.  Black people looked forward to midnight today so that they too could be acknowledged inside the new legal structure and know some freedom and some liberty.  Those Black folks are likely drawing their own connections to the earlier movement of Black people in this country.  Perhaps I should be more measured in my criticism of those folks because they are, well, Black.  But I do think that the connection is a forced, artificial one.  I’m cautious in general because of that long, existential thread that links me to a person or a relative or a people who were told who they could love and what rights they could and couldn’t have.  My blackness makes me much more liberal in that way.  But those unions allowed under the pronouncement of the judge or the lifestyle celebrant today weren’t like the earlier unions in the brush harbors of slave plantations.  There was no “more powerful other” in the ear of those couples downtown today when Judge Evans and Mayor Emanuel snapped photos and smiled and congratulated.

I think it is an advance in our state’s political arena that the civil unions have happened.  I’ll get to that in post three.  But I am concerned that the language of the struggle has borrowed, taken from, and used the narrative of the civil rights movement.  I am concerned that the practice and habit of using Black folks for everybody else’s progress continues.  I am concerned that the hardships, fights, prayers, work, and deaths of people with skin like and darker than mine can so easily be employed and appropriated for somebody other than themselves.

I think it’s a misuse of our forebears.  It may well be consistent with movement toward a more just society.  It may be a politically expedient decision to make.  But does that mean we, once again, drop into the collective story of Black people, take what is theirs, and push it into the discourse of the next popular topic because those people’s story of struggle is effective?  It that is the case, it won’t be without people  like me thinking out loud and demanding some reconsideration.

What do you think?

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