Photo: Kelly Prizel (

In the land of Uhauls and cohabitation, some of us choose to formalize our partnerships through the State. The freedom to marry is proving to be one of the hotly contested issues under the umbrella of civil rights, and the debate about its support has increased as we near election terms.

Because the Constitution grants states the right to individually decide their rules for marriage, it can be challenging to navigate the options we have to be married. The federal government’s involvement by defining marriage as one between a man and a woman doesn’t make the landscape any clearer.

Here’s a quick and dirty guide to the various types of unions legally recognized across the U.S.

Same-sex marriage

What it is: Some states extend the full marriage rights that opposite-sex couples enjoy to same-sex relationships. Beyond the actual ceremony, these marriage rights extend to tax filing, property ownership rights, family decision-making, insurance, and more. States that allow same sex marriage are Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, California, and Vermont. The District of Columbia became the most recent place to allow it as well.

What it is not: Recognized by the federal government because of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) of 1996. This means that while you file your state taxes as married, you file your federal ones as single since federal agencies do not recognize this union. Additionally, the Social Security Administration will not honor your marriage if anything should happen to one partner, nor can you file joint bankruptcy.

Civil Unions

What it is: The definition of civil unions differs among states. Usually the term “civil union” is employed when states want to grant same sex couples marriage rights without offending the beliefs of conservative communities that recognize marriage as exclusively between a man and a woman. Some argue that civil unions are this generation’s version of “separate but equal.” Because there is no universal definition for civil unions, each state’s rights surrounding it vary as well. States granting civil unions include Illinois, New Jersey, Rhode Island, Hawaii, and Delaware.

What is not: Civil union is not marriage. In addition to the lack of federal recognition, it is not automatically recognized in other states, regardless if they grant same sex marriages.

Domestic Partnerships/Registries

What it is: Domestic partnerships is the most varied of all the legally recognized unions. In some states like Washington, this can be almost identical to gay marriage or civil unions. In states like Colorado, this only means some beneficiary rights. There are also states with individual municipalities that grant limited benefits to domestic partners. States with domestic partnerships are Nevada, Colorado, Maine, Maryland, Oregon, Wisconsin, and Washington

What it is not: Domestic partnerships are not marriages and are not intended to replicate them. In many areas, there are few protections that come with domestic partnership, but instead operate as a way to formalize relationships.

The Bottom Line

Marriage for lesbian, gay and bisexual people is not one size fits all. Laws are ever-changing and greatly diverging. So what does this mean for you? Do your homework. Research which options are available for your particular situation. You may also want to consult a lawyer experienced in LGBT issues to explore creating wills, power of attorney, child custody, and other documents to file your intention and protect your families until LGBT rights are truly equal.

– Aleia Mims

Aleia Mims is a wife, mother, daughter, and sister for whom writing is a form of liberation. She shares her journey so that others may name their own experiences and realize their higher truths. Her commitment to self-empowerment was a key feature of her eleven years as a classroom teacher, and remain as such with her current work at an education non-profit in New York City. Follow more of her journey at and on Twitter @liber8ntheory.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.