Civil Unions V. Marriage


Photo by Torie McMillan Photography

It’s the turning of the tides here in Illinois, as new legislation has been put to a vote introducing a marriage equality act into our fair state. Sponsored by Sen. Heather Steans and Rep. Greg Harris, the bill hopes to have Illinois become the 10 th member of our union to offer same-sex marriage to its residents (11 th if you include Washington D.C.) Currently, we afford LGBTQ couples the right to contract into a civil union; one of 5 states to do so. So, what does it mean? What’s the difference? Why should it matter? Let me tell you—it means a lot, the differences are major, and it matters on more levels than you can count.

Civil Unions

Offered as a sort of consolation prize to LGBTQ couples, civil unions afford some basic protections under the law that we were previously denied. Once entered into this type of partnership, couples are privy to state-level protection on par with heterosexual married couples. Civil union rights differ state by state. In Illinois,
benefits include:

• Medical power of attorney if one of you becomes incapacitated
• Joint property ownership
• Protection against testifying in court against your spouse
• Rights to sharing the same nursing home room
• Pension protection, where one spouse has a pension plan that rolls over to their spouse in the event of their death
• Workers comp benefits
• The right to sue for wrongful death
• Inheritance protection if one of you dies without a will, and exemption from Property Taxes upon your partner’s death
• The right to dissolve and disseminate property and finances through a court should the relationship end
• Child custody, joint adoption, joint parenting
• Domestic Violence Protection
• Joint bankruptcy
• Visitation rights in hospitals and prisons

Sounds good, right? It is. Absolutely. I am not going to belittle the benefits that we have received that have changed so many lives for the better. But it’s not enough. Civil unions, while definitely a stepping stone on the path towards equality, are rife with error. They are not universally accepted, so once you cross state lines you are once again a single person fighting the battle to simple live your life. Thanks to the Defense of Marriage Act, the federal government does not recognize ANY same-sex unions. That’s right. ANY. Even in states that allow same-sex marriage, couples are seen as “single” in the eyes of Uncle Sam. What does this mean?

Well, some things we can’t do…even if married.

• You can not sponsor your spouse for residency, so don’t fall in love with anyone who isn’t already a citizen unless you are looking to increase frequent flyer miles
• You cannot file joint taxes or receive any tax benefits. On your federal return, you must still click “single.”
• You can not apply for Veteran’s discounts if your spouse is in the armed forces
• You are not eligible for your partner’s Social Security and Medicare benefits, nor are you eligible to file for joint benefits
• Automatic family insurance through your employer (unless either of you works for state government, which is covered by a non-discrimination policy)


Don’t be discouraged. Passing marriage equality in Illinois is still vitally important. While civil unions do not cross state lines, marriages do. States do not have to afford you all of the rights of a married couple if you venture into unfriendly territory, but they will automatically recognize your union and allow basic rights like hospital visitations. In all states with some semblance of LGBTQ marriage laws (civil unions, domestic partnerships, civil marriages) your marriage will automatically be recognised as whatever that state has to offer if you pick up and move there. As it stands, couples married in Iowa and moving to Illinois will automatically be counted as part of a civil union. However, couples ‘unionised’ here and moving to Iowa do not have the same luxury.

MapIt is also important in name. Married. Just think about it. Every single person on this Earth knows what it means when you say, “I am married.” It’s a dedication of love and commitment, of jointly travelling down the bumpy roads together. Separate and unequal, second class citizens awarded second class civil unions, these are the sentiments we are left with right now. As the Massachusetts Supreme Court said, only marriage equals marriage. By accepting the lesser option, we are bowing down and thanking them for the crumbs of their feast. We are citizens of the same country, afforded the same rights and protections under the law. That includes the right to marry (and divorce) whom we choose.

Finally, the big picture reason: currently the Supreme Court has two cases they are hearing that could change the face of marriage equality. As long as marriage is controlled by individual states and there is a universal acceptance of second-class status, the Supreme Court is less inclined to step in and create sweeping policy changes. They need to see the struggle, the divide amongst our nation. The more piece-meal the equality map looks like, the more the Supreme Court will be motivated to act. Eleven regions with marriage equality, 5 with civil unions, 6 with domestic partnerships….it’s a puzzle begging to be solved.

This vote is historic, and we all have a role to play. The new legislators took office the same day the bill was put to the floor. Call them. Email them. Every day. It will take two seconds. Reach out to 10 people and encourage them to do the same. If you know anyone who lives south of Chicago, PESTER THEM. Those districts are vital. Let them know that the pressure is on, and equality will wait no more.

Act NOW! You can send an email to your representative, quickly and painlessly, right through Equality Illinois:

You May Also Like:

Back to blog

About Leah Schein

Leah is a born and bred Chicagoan, and considers herself extremely fortunate to be raised by amazing liberal parents in Logan Square. Coming from a long family history of equality activism, the crazy world of politics feels like home to her. Her upbringing allowed her to fully appreciate her love of tacos, and provided the support needed to be independent and insane. She is a happy survivor of the public school system, all the way through her undergrad years, culminating with a BA in anthropology. Her love of travel and all things adventurous led to the pursuit of a Master of Science from sunny ol’ England, where she happily grasped a conservation degree and ran off to live in a number of rain forests to research nocturnal primates. Through the amazing diversity she was fortunate to be raised amongst, she has an unwavering appreciation of all cultures and peoples, and has used this to form the foundation of her outspoken support of civil rights. You may have seen her running around Boystown/Tuna town over the last decade, or at events she volunteers at for the Human Rights Campaign. It’s possible you spied her at the Silent Film Festival. That strange woman getting into a wrestling match in the leaves on Foster Ave beach at 3am…that definitely wasn’t her. She couldn’t be more excited about sharing her love of science, and it’s role in our daily lives, with the community she loves. Nerds are cool, people. They drink martini’s too.



  1. […] Sometimes you experience something and it strikes you to your core.  Maybe you read it, maybe you saw it, maybe you heard it, but all of a sudden there is a wealth of knowledge and emotion that wasn’t there before.  That’s how I felt this week when I read This. […]

    The Same but Not Equal - January 24, 2013
  2. […] “Civil Unions V. Marriage”: This is an informative piece explaining some of the main differences between civil unions and marriage. Ultimately, the article argues that the federal government should recognize same-sex unions across the board (true that!): “Civil unions, while definitely a stepping stone on the path towards equality, are rife with error. They are not universally accepted, so once you cross state lines you are once again a single person fighting the battle to simple live your life. Thanks to the Defense of Marriage Act, the federal government does not recognize ANY same-sex unions. That’s right. ANY.” […]

Post a comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.