Sex-Agnostic Domestic Partnerships – A Practical Compromise on Same-Sex Relationships and Traditional Marriage

One of the most frustrating things about modern politics is the “all-or-nothing” approach to solving problems. For some reason we feel compelled to make sweeping comprehensive changes instead of taking smaller piecemeal steps for things on which we CAN compromise.

Troll Quotes_Gandalf

I have argued previously that so-called “Marriage Privatization” is not a real solution to the issue of same-sex marriage.

But there is a compromise on the issue to which I think most conservatives would have few objections. It’s called “Sex-Neutral” or “Sex-Agnostic” Domestic Partnerships.

Sex-Agnostic legal partnerships would allow any two people (or even three or four people) to enter into a domestic partnership for shared access to things like health insurance and tax breaks, inheritance rights, visitation rights, power of attorney, etc. REGARDLESS of whether they have a sexual relationship or not.

It would allow not only same-sex couples to create a legally recognized relationship that grants them significant shared rights and obligations, but would allow those same rights and obligations to siblings who live together and share lives, or to a parent and adult child who live together, or to three bachelor friends who have decided to share for a long time a substantial part of their lives and finances.

By leaving the definition of marriage out of it and taking the issue of whether the relationship is sexual in nature out of the equation, it makes the proposal almost entirely uncontroversial. I suspect it could be enacted in nearly every state quickly and with little opposition.

There would certainly still be strong disagreement about the issue of adoption. But the issue of who should be qualified to adopt children can be bracketed and addressed separately with variation in different states over time. In the mean time, a substantial improvement to the ability of not just same-sex couples, but many other people to rights and benefits would be accomplished in a reasonable way.

Does everybody get what they want? No. That is the nature of compromise. Are there dangers of slippery slopes? Sure.

But it diffuses much of the antagonism because it allows for broad access to benefits and legal recognition of relationships without making a statement in any way about the acceptability of certain kinds of sexual relationships and behavior. It allows people with strong disagreements to acknowledge each other’s legitimate concerns and be sympathetic and merciful without having to compromise fundamental beliefs while still leaving doors open for honest disagreement.

Why isn’t this something that is on the table?

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11 Responses to Sex-Agnostic Domestic Partnerships – A Practical Compromise on Same-Sex Relationships and Traditional Marriage

  1. Kimbooly

    This is what I have been saying for years. I recognize that it isn’t a perfect solution, but I agree that it pretty much nullifies the controversial parts of the issue. It would allow for true “equal” civil rights in regard to the legal bundle that is now afforded heterosexual married couples (and of course I stand behind why it has done so in the past). It would also allow all couples to celebrate their commitment and unions in ways that are meaningful and unique to them, regardless of their religious, political, or financial views (just threw that last one in for fun). That’s my two cents.

  2. Lee

    Finally. Something that makes sense for all parties involved. A practical, simple solution. I vote yea!

  3. Tim and I were talking about this just last night–this is the solution we thought was most practical, too.

    Question, though: How is your proposal different from civil unions? When I have said I support civil unions, this is what I thought I was talking about.

  4. J. Max Wilson

    The term “Civil Union” is ambiguous. It could be used to mean exactly the kind of sex-agnostic construction I describe here. But more often than not “Civil Union” has been used to describe a legal construct that tries to mimic marriage in that it is only available to people who are romantically involved and presumably sexually intimate. That is why you have to be specific that you mean “Sex-Neutral Civil Unions” and not just Civil Unions.

    The fact that it is available to anyone whether or not they are in a romantic, sexual relationship is essential. Without that fundamental attribute it bumps into too many fundamental disagreements.

    I WILL NOT support Civil Unions for same-sex couples. But I will compromise to support domestic partnerships for everyone because it does not imply special recognition of homosexuality, but still acknowledges and addresses many of their concerns.

    Does that make sense?

  5. I’m really hoping you knew the Yoda quote attributed to Dumbledore with a picture of Gandalf is troll bait when you used it =)

  6. J. Max Wilson



  7. J. Max Wilson

    I’m pasting a comment from a friend on Facebook here because I think it is an important point to consider:

    “I see two major problems with it. Marriage benefits are benefits, in my mind, packaged to encourage stability in potentially procreative relationships. Many of those benefits could be extended individually to anyone who meet certain criteria, but offering it as a package to anyone living together, no matter the quantity of people, denudes the main reason the community has an interest in offering some of those benefits, like tax breaks. It’s not popular to say, but I don’t think we can afford to offer a benefit wholesale with very little ROI.

    Secondly, divorce already drains cash into the pockets of unethical lawyers. Granted, the emotional factor which causes much of that would be less, but it would be sufficiently complicated by other factors. You’re not just talking about a decree that says, “We shall extend marriage type benefits to all roommates.” It would require extensive development of laws to cover the ending of such relationships. It would make our current divorce laws look simple in comparison.

    Roommate laws are bad enough now without adding the complication of semipermanence to the whole thing. And for very little benefit to the community outside of ideological satisfaction based on a schoolyard desire to “be fair” which we have somehow managed to avoid maturing beyond.”

  8. J. Max Wilson

    In response to my friend’s comment from Facebook:

    I think these are astute concerns. But I think the solution lies in abandoning the idea that domestic partnerships need to be alternative marriages and mirror marriage in form and function. They don’t and shouldn’t.

    They are not marriages. They are contracts. There is no need for them to even pretend to be permanent. They could even have sunset clauses that require them to be renewed regularly or they would lapse automatically. They are not intended to provide stability. They are simply meant to allow people to designate who they want to be able to visit them in the hospital, who they want to make medical decisions for them in the case they are unconscious, who should get their social security and inherit their property should they die, etc.

    Certainly there would be some tax breaks and benefits that would not necessarily be available to partnerships because their primary intent is to promote marriage stability and traditional parenting for children. But those benefits could be debated on an individual benefit basis.

    If the domestic partnership contracts are entered into as knowingly temporary contractual arrangements then there is no need for divorce. It’s just contract law. Not even semi-permanence would be expected.

    Of course the contracts wouldn’t just let people designate hospital visitation and social security recipients, they would also include obligations: if you are in a domestic partnership you would also be liable for unpaid debts and bills incurred by your partners during the time period that the contract is valid. (Which acts as a kind of deterrent to people entering into such contracts frivolously).

  9. Interesting idea. My question is this: if all of this is just contract law, then why would government need to pass a law to make it possible? For example, you can leave your inheritance to any person you want through a will; as far as I know, the only benefit marriage provides is that if you don’t have a will your property de facto passes to your spouse through the law of intestate succession, but anyone can trump that through a will. I suppose a law is necessary to provide for tax breaks or SS, but can anyone not already use a contract for hospital visitation rights, medical decisions, etc?

  10. J. Max Wilson

    Matthew, I think that you are right that many of these things can already be done through existing contract law. But the fact is that it is a huge hassle for people to go through each thing individually and have a lawyer draw up separate contracts for each shared item and designation.

    We need a convenient one-stop domestic partnership contract that has provisions for each of the common things that people want to designate (inheritance, visitation, power of attorney, insurance coverage, social security reception upon death, financial payment and debt obligations). As I said in the comment above, it should have no pretense at permanence and should probably include a sunset clause so that the contract has to be actively renewed on a regular basis.

    People wishing to form a domestic partnership could simply download a copy from the state website or pick one up at the county clerk’s office. If they want to have the contract modified to remove or add provisions, they could consult with a lawyer. But if they want to take the contact as is, they sign it with the proper witnesses before a county official or judge, and they have a domestic partnership.

  11. This sounds a lot like something I read recently about the current reality in France. I’m not going to go dig up the article but it was talking about how the availability of a legal tool similar to what you are describing has substantially diffused the debate on legal issues surrounding sexual orientation. The article noted that those partnerships were used overwhelmingly by heterosexual couples who were not interested in getting legally married.

    I do see one major obstacle to your idea here in the U.S. – I don’t think the LGBT activists are interested in any sort of compromise. Those of us who want to see people treated fairly but regard marriage are more than a simple legal contract may see this as a reasonable compromise but I see no evidence that those on the other side are willing to accept ANY compromise no matter how reasonable.

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