Column One:
Eye on Unmarried America

August 7,  2006  



Looking 'beyond marriage' for equal rights

By Thomas F. Coleman

Same-sex marriage advocates who lost two major court cases last month will have to rethink their approach to secure equal rights for gay and lesbian couples. 

The first setback came when New York's highest court ruled that the state constitution does not require the government to open up the institution of marriage to same-sex couples.  Next came a similar ruling by the Supreme Court of Washington state.

Then, just when pro-marriage advocates were trying to regain their balance, a formal statement was issued by a large group of gay and lesbian lawyers, professors, and political activists.  Issued on July 26, 2006, the statement is entitled "Beyond Same-Sex Marriage: A New Strategic Vision for All Our Families and Relationships."

Found at, it urges those in leadership positions in the gay and lesbian rights movement to look "beyond marriage" in their quest for equal rights. 

More than 250 signers of the manifesto -- many well known and well respected in equal rights circles -- say they are offering "a new vision for securing governmental and private institutional recognition of diverse kinds of partnerships, households, kinship relationships and families."  In so doing, they seek to "move beyond the narrow confines of marriage politics as they exist in the United States today."

"All families, relationships, and households struggling for stability and economic security will be helped by separating basic forms of legal and economic recognition from the requirement of marital and conjugal relationship," the statement proclaims. 

The policy statement seeks to broaden the struggle for equal rights to include blood relatives who live together as a family unit, or seniors who form a loving partnership but who choose not to marry for economic reasons, or best friends who share a household on a long-term basis.  Whether these relationships are gay, straight, bisexual, or nonsexual should be irrelevant. 

Legalizing same-sex marriage is one approach that will help a segment of the gay and lesbian community who want to form a legal marriage contract.  But there are many gays and lesbians who would not marry even if it were legal to do so.  Should they be denied equal rights because they would prefer to form a "domestic partnership" rather than marry?

The same-sex marriage movement, in its quest to make all roads lead to legalized gay marriage, has had an unfortunate effect of distorting a relatively new secular institution which has been called "domestic partnership."  Prior to the big push for gay marriage in the mid-1990s, domestic partnership was almost uniformly considered to be a broad family-oriented concept which included same-sex and opposite-sex couples who wanted official recognition of their primary family relationship.

In the wake of litigation in Hawaii and elsewhere seeking judicial recognition of same-sex marriage, many political activists tried to turn domestic partnership into a stepping stone for gay marriage rather than allowing it to be a legal relationship that would stand on its own. 

Their first major victory was in California, where the marriage advocates switched support from inclusive domestic partnership legislation to domestic partnership for same-sex couples only. I and a few others fought them on this and, in the end, only partially succeeded in keeping domestic partnership open to heterosexual couples.  Governor Gray Davis reluctantly agreed that domestic partnership would include heterosexual couples over the age of 62 in addition to same-sex couples of any adult age.

But my proposal to allow blood relatives to secure domestic partnership rights got nowhere.  Most gay rights advocates wanted domestic partnership to look as much like marriage as possible.  Since blood relatives are excluded from marriage, they insisted that blood relatives be excluded from domestic partnership.

An alternative approach was used in the District of Columbia.  A law passed by the district council, and given approval by Congress and President George W. Bush, allows any two adults, including blood relatives, to register as domestic partners and gain various benefits as a result.

New Jersey decided to follow the California model which prohibits blood relatives and heterosexual couples under the age of 62 from registering as domestic partners.  The City of Salt Lake, Utah, followed the more inclusive approach of the District of Columbia when it recently broadened the city's employee benefits program.

So the release of the "Beyond Marriage" statement is well timed.  Equal rights advocates have some major decisions to make as they try to find remedies for a wide range of inequities experienced by unmarried employees, consumers, and taxpayers.

I, for one, hope that such strategies look "beyond marriage" and focus at least as much time and energy on passing inclusive domestic partnership laws and broadening the definition of "family" in public policies and private programs.

Unmarried America 2006

Thomas F. Coleman, Executive Director of Unmarried America, is an attorney with 33 years of experience in singles' rights, family diversity, domestic partner benefits, and marital status discrimination.  Each week he adds a new commentary to Column One: Eye on Unmarried America. E-mail: Unmarried America is a nonprofit information service for unmarried employees, consumers, taxpayers, and voters.