Steve Chapman

The opponents of same-sex matrimony are in ever-worsening straits. Civil unions and domestic partnerships, which provide some or most of the accouterments of marriage, have been provided to gay couples in nine states and the District of Columbia, according to Lambda Legal. Once radical, these are seen today as the sensible compromise between giving gays the right to sacred matrimony and giving them a sharp stick in the eye.

Offered a middle-of-the-road option between Perez Hilton and Pat Robertson, Americans have flocked to it. Eight years ago, Pew says, only 45 percent were in favor of civil unions. Today, it's 57 percent.

Washingtonians approved the most expansive version, and they knew exactly what they were doing. The ballot said, "This bill would expand the rights, responsibilities and obligations accorded state-registered same-sex and senior domestic partners to be equivalent to those of married spouses, except that a domestic partnership is not a marriage."

Why is it not a marriage? Not because it is legally different under Washington state law, but because … well, because it is not called marriage. But it's an identical twin.

The advantage of this bashful euphemism is that it accommodates gays on the most important issues related to family -- legal recognition and rights, protection for children, access to pension and insurance benefits -- while avoiding the weighty symbolism of calling this arrangement by a name that carries religious connotations.

In time, though, it will be apparent that granting same-sex couples substantive equality has none of the calamitous consequences imagined by gay-rights opponents. At that point, some of them will find themselves saying: Tell me again why we don't let them get married?

Many gay-rights advocates reject anything short of full access to marriage as a disgraceful revival of the old "separate but equal" policy -- which was anything but equal for African-Americans. But you don't get across a broad river in a single leap. You get there by building a bridge that allows you to travel across one step at a time.

As a destination, civil unions leave a lot to be desired. But as an avenue, they're hard to beat.

Steve Chapman

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.

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