Wait, I'll explain.
Imagine that I could wave my magic wand tomorrow and accomplish two things:
- Every state had civil unions.
- By law, civil unions must be treated exactly like marriages by governments, private institutions and (for some purposes) religious institutions.
What happened? We've essentially established a separate-but-equal marriage system. I know that separate but equal is bad, but bear with me for a bit.
First off, let me deal with one thing. Religious institutions? My plan is this: they may but need not perform said civil unions. For religious purposes, they do not need to recognize them as valid. For business purposes (e.g. employment) they do. If the church hires you to be their gardener, for example, your civilly-united spouse is entitled to the same insurance benefits as a married spouse would get.
So now we're ticking along with parallel systems. The reason this is a good thing is that, for one, it's a million times better than what we have now. It's massive progress. It's also easier to achieve-- the majority of the population thinks that same-sex civil unions should be allowed to exist. It's just that they balk at the word marriage. Even the Mormon church is in favor of civil unions.
So, hum hum hum, the two parallel systems hum along for a while, maybe ten years, maybe 20. People get used to it, and all the political brouhaha quiets down to a dull background roar. There's still an element of second-class-citizenship in this, I will grant you, but it's a huge improvement over what we have now.
And then one day, some smart leader says, "You know, this separate system is dumb. Why have two systems that do the same thing, when one will suffice?" And voila. With the stroke of a pen, we have marriage rights. It will be far less controversial than it is now, partially because the younger generations are more open, and partially because people will have a decade or two in which to see queerfolk unioning themselves without the world falling apart.
There's one big gotcha in this, and that's getting civil unions to the equal point of separate-but-equal, and also universal. While that's not a trivial task, I think it's easier than getting marriage rights simply because it avoids the big fat scary M word. It's compromise, and it's not getting everything right away, but I think it may be the best path to the end result.