FOR WEEKS, the news from Connecticut has been that its Legislature would soon pass a civil unions law, but not a marriage law, for same-sex couples. Many pointed out that that's a mixed blessing. Civil unions offer less than half of marriage's full protections and obligations; they don't trigger any of marriage's federal rights and responsibilities, and it's not clear whether they travel beyond the state's borders. Since Massachusetts, right next door, stands as a proud example of how full legal recognition helps many families and hurts no one, Connecticut's half-measure was opposed by the advocacy group Love Makes a Family. Why shrink the institution just for lesbians and gay men, when the regular size fits fine?
If the Connecticut Legislature heard that concern, it scoffed. Because in response, it spiked its civil unions half-measure with a gratuitous and insulting phrase that defined marriage as between a man and a woman. Did legislators think, perhaps, that local same-sex couples hadn't noticed that they were excluded from marriage? Were legislators unable to stop themselves from shouting out, ''nyaah nyaah, you're still not equal, so there!"?
What's doubly insulting is that the clause already exists in Connecticut's statutes. In 2000, in a law that enabled both moms or both dads to have legal ties to their child, the Legislature stuck in the phrase, ''the current public policy of the state of Connecticut is now limited to a marriage between a man and a woman." So why underline that restriction this time?
There's nothing wrong with getting started on the road to equality by passing a civil unions law; moving incrementally is an honorable approach. Consider the breakthrough achieved in California, the first state to broadly protect same-sex couples without a shove from a court.
In 2000, California's legislature created a bare-bones domestic partnership registry for same-sex pairs. Each year since, the California legislature added more muscle and meaning to that registry and in 2003, made California's registered domestic partnership fully the equivalent of Vermont's civil unions, albeit without either the name or the controversy. That slow-but-steady approach, which attracted almost no national media attention, was overshadowed last year when San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom's showy weddings pushed the marriage question into California court. Nevertheless, the California Legislature is now considering a bill that would extend full marriage rights to same-sex pairs.
This month Maryland took its first step on the same encouraging path, passing a domestic partnership registry that enables couples who register to make medical decisions for each other. Oregon is considering a combined civil unions and antidiscrimination bill, backed by the Democratic governor, Senate president, and majority leader. New Jersey's more minimal civil unions statute (originally opposed by then-closeted Governor James McGreevey) has stalled in place, possibly because advocates expect to win the same-sex marriage lawsuit slowly moving through the state's courts.
All of which makes it infuriating that Connecticut's Legislature chose to rub lesbians' and gay men's noses in their second-class status. Did legislators do it to protect themselves from the vitriol of antigay organizations? If so, it was a mistake. Those organizations regularly announce that they oppose both marriage and civil unions as well as any recognition of same-sex couples, no matter how minimal, even hospital visitation rights. Or did legislators simply feel queasy about this step toward fairness and want to make clear that they're not yet comfortable with lesbians and gay men?
In last fall's nationwide exit polls, 60 percent of voters said they favored either marriage or civil unions for same-sex couples. That's an amazingly high percentage, especially considering that number includes gay-unfriendly voters in the former Confederate states. Since that's a spike upward from just a few years ago, and since younger folks favor equality for same-sex couples by ever-larger margins, it suggests that opinion will continue to move, slowly and steadily, toward gender-neutral marriage laws. More and more Americans are coming to see that when two people decide to care for each other for life, they should have the legal tools to carry out that commitment even when not all of us approve of those folks' marital choices.
Connecticut legislators almost had a right to feel proud of their half-step forward. But instead, they should be ashamed of distancing themselves from doing the fair and moral thing with one hand while slapping the dignity of thousands of citizens with the other.
E.J. Graff, a resident scholar at the Women's Studies Research Center at Brandeis University, is the author of ''What Is Marriage For? The Strange Social History of Our Most Intimate Institution."