The Sexist

In Defense of D.C.’s Domestic Partnerships

On Alternet, Melissa Harris-Lacewell argues that even as the nation fights to establish marriage equality, it must work to reevaluate institution of marriage itself. "Our work must be not just about marriage equality, it should also be about equal marriages, and about equal rights and security for those who opt out of marriage altogether," she writes. Meanwhile, in Washington D.C., Councilmember David Catania's efforts to establish same-sex marriage in the District will come with a price for those who "opt out."  Catania's bill will allow gay couples to marry in the District of Columbia, but will eliminate another form of legal unions in the District: domestic partnerships. According to the Washington Blade, "Catania’s bill calls for phasing out the city’s domestic partnership law by ending the ability of same-sex or opposite-sex couples to register new domestic partnerships with the city as of Jan. 1, 2011."

Responding to criticisms of the provision, Catania Chief of Staff Ben Young said that domestic partnerships will be "unnecessary in a world with marriage equality." Young told the Blade, "Domestic partnerships were developed as a substitute for civil marriage for gays and lesbians, and could continue to serve as a vestige of an era of inequality." But as Harrice-Lacewell details, the institution of marriage itself is a vestige of centuries of sexism, racism, classism, and heteronormativity. Will incorporating same-sex couples into the institution manage to fully strip marriage of its problematic history?

In D.C., domestic partnerships afford same- and opposite-sex couples "nearly all of the rights, benefits and obligations of marriage." Here, the difference between partnership and marriage is largely symbolic. Marriage equality advocates across the country are fighting for that symbolic cultural recognition as much as they are the hospital visitation rights and the tax breaks. But for some couples, both gay and straight, the symbolic implications of marriage are precisely what  turn them off to the institution. For these people, domestic partnerships have functioned not as a vestige of inequality—a poor substitute for marriage—but rather as a welcome legal alternative, minus the cultural hang-ups. These couples should be allowed the option to secure the rights and benefits of marriage without associating with what has been, for centuries, a bigotry shit-show.

Even when everyone who wants to get hitched is allowed to, a "world with marriage equality" may still leave unmarried gay men and women outside the fold of this new-found social acceptance.  "I think that the more gay life can become legitimized (which is usually just code for "heteronormafied"), it will create a further subclass within the gay subclass," says Zack Rosen, editor of The New Gay. "[The current movement's] school of thought is that we can win rights by being the best damn gay people we can. That means getting married, washing behind our ears, etc. The problem with that, though, is that if it only rewards gay people that want to get married and have kids, the gay people that decide not to do that will become further marginalized."

Those gay people who do want to couple up for the long-term shouldn't be forced to opt into this problematic social institution in order to secure their legal rights. By denying couples the ability to enter into domestic partnerships, the District of Columbia tells its gay population that the road to legal and social equality must end in marriage. For those couples, gay and straight, who see marriage as an institution historically dedicated to inequalities, that reasoning is hard to swallow.

  • Lena

    Thanks for the great piece, which addresses a seldom discussed topic in the fight for marriage equality. There are plenty of people, including those who are straight, who will want to continue to opt out of marriage regardless of whether it becomes a more equal legal institution.

  • Victor

    As a straight individual I can say I think that marriage should not be a legal institution. There is too much religious baggage. Couples should be able to identify their partnership in some legal manner (such as existing civil unions) and this should be the ONLY legally recognized unions. This way, churches can go and marry whoever they want, and recognize or not recognize anyone's marriage without any legal ramifications. Non-religious individuals can choose to just get a civil union, and religious individuals can top it off with a religious marriage of their choosing.

  • JoPo

    This is a really helpful post. It's great to see the arguments for other forms of legal recognition laid out, especially in a time when people who care about LGBTQ rights are encouraged to get unquestioningly behind the newest opportunity for equal rights (or assimilation, depending on how you see it).

    It would be interesting to include other initiatives that aren't on the table right now: "fixing" the institution of marriage by making it tied only to religious ceremony but not legally binding, removing marriage/domestic partnership incentives altogether to avoid penalizing singles, etc.

  • Former Staffer

    As an athiest, I would prefer a domestic partnership to a marriage any day.

  • Mike

    I have no problem with domestic partnerships existing alongside marriage;however there is no uniform definition or recognition of dps at the moment and legally speaking marriage is the gold standard.When DOMA is finally repealed maybe there will be movement on making dps legally equivalent to marriage - let's hope so.Speaking for myself I found it incredibly moving to be legally married to my spouse of then 10 yrs(16+ now!!!) and be recognized as a legitimate couple.I'm secular & don't especially feel the need for societal approval,yet... It truly was an emotional moment.At some level I believe most of us want our relationships to be respected & seen as equal and at this point and time marriage has clout that other designations lack.

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  • adams morgan girl

    I really like this article, it hits on a note of the importance of domestic partnerships, not just for homosexual couples but beyond that.

    I always saw it as a way that two best friends/roommates could get health insurance, and all the legal benefits of partnerships without any religious or sexual connotations.

    It will be a shame if this passes.

  • Mike Hawke

    I just posted a letter to Catania's web site, suggesting that he drop the clause about (doing away with) domestic partnerships.

    I suggest any DC residents who agree do the same, before Tuesday. He's a politician, and elected at-large too. He very well may listen if enough people contact his office over the weekend.

  • DB

    As a former civilly unioned hetero, it is the only status that i would ever consider. i've no interest in inviting the state to regulate the dissolution of my partnership (via divorce court), or imitating Christian sacraments.

    DC's civil union is one of the most progressive in the country, and i was quite proud to live in a jurisdiction that respected them.

    I'll call Catania today. Hopefully he'll get it.

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  • Alternatives to Marriage

    The Alternatives to Marriage Project will be submitting testimony explaining why it would be a mistake to discontinue the domestic partnership registry. For more information go to or contact

  • BobinDC

    @Hawke,The bill isn't in Catania's control. It was referred to the COmmittee on Public Safety and the Judiciary. So if you want to have the is section repealled, please contact Committee Chair Phil Mendelson. Feel free to let David Catania know that he added a bad section to an important bill, but Catania isn't actually a position to amend it.

    I expect that by the time the bill gets through the committee, this provision will be stripped out.

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