Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Marriage?


One of the hazards of my line of work (for today's purposes, being gay) is being discussed in the third person while you're right there in the room. These days, thanks to the recent California referendum, the topic of whether or not Steve and I should be allowed to get married is on everybody's lips. As usual, nobody's asked us what we think, I guess because the assumption that we want to marry is automatic. Well-meaning straight friends wish us well out of straight guilt, while the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), the big gay lobbying group, assumes that of course we want to get married and then presumes to speak for us to Congress and the rest of the civilized world.

So just to remind you I'm here and do have an opinion, here it is, unsolicited though it may be:

The HRC was wrong-headed beyond belief when it insisted on "marriage rights," tossing that red-meat "M" word into the ring to be ravished by the religious right. The right was in the ascendancy from the White House on down, they owned the pulpit (word choice well-considered), and they had and continue to have a field day rousing the bible-toting rabble with our attack on the holy sacrament of marriage. Like that other completely private matter, abortion, how I choose to conduct my life with the person I love has become one of those polarizing public topics that just won't go away. It didn't have to be that way. Civil unions could have been quietly recognized, state by state, until, before you knew it, you had a defacto national consensus. The federal government would have been forced to follow suit. "Marriage" as co-opted by the HRC would have had nothing to do with it.

First: most gay couples are already able to cobble together legal protections equivalent to those automatically conveyed by what's conventionally called marriage. Steve and I own everything together, from our house (right of survivorship) to our joint bank account. We have given each other legal and medical powers of attorney. Our end-of-life documents make it clear that we consider everything in our life equally and jointly owned. In short, in a legal sense, we are already "married."

(Here is an illustrative sidebar to the matter of health care. I discovered a few years ago during a medical emergency in Delaware that despite the scary bugaboo about hospitals having the option to ignore medical powers of attorney on moral grounds if they disagree with our living arrangement, HIPAA and standard medical practice make the nature of our relationship irrelevant. First, HIPAA forms simply ask, "whom should be contacted in the event of an emergency?" "Relationship" is not part of the question. And second, in order for treatment and follow-up care to continue after hospitalization, doctors need to know who will be the primary caregiver. I was accepted in that role with gratitude and the utmost respect, no questions asked. If the hospital had insisted on Steve's unavailable blood next-of-kin, it was clear that I could have sued for malpractice and won.)

So we are as well-protected as we can be within the present legal framework. But there is a behemoth in the room: no federal acknowledgement of our relationship. Steve can't legally name me as a survivor for his Social Security payments, nor can he receive any share of my federal reitrement pension after my death. When Steve's job ends in June, 2009, he will lose his medical insurance, and I can't put him on my federal policy. Remember that thing the great friend of gays Bill Clinton signed into law, the so-called "Defense of Marriage Act" (DOMA)? I had thought that until that was repealed, we would have no recourse and just have to deal with harsh reality, as we always have.

But lo and behold, there is a glimmer of light. A move is afoot in Congress to work around DOMA. Last September, there was actually a committee hearing, chaired by Senators Joe Lieberman of Connecticut and Susan Collins of Maine (that is: the Homeland Security Committee!), to explore ways to implement equal benefits for same-sex couples in the federal work force. The issue is being cast in terms of civil rights and homeland security, the rationale for the latter being that the government has to be at least as competitive as the private-sector institutions that already have these equality protections on their books. The Feds face a serious brain drain as Boomers retire, and the best minds are needed to protect the country. Many of those good minds happen to be in love with people of the same sex.

DOMA will remain as a fig leaf. Essentially, Lieberman and Collins are saying, "we don't care what you call it. Keep your 'marriage.' For the security of the nation, these people need equal protection and we're working to see to it that they get it."

So call it marriage, call it civil union, call it whatever you want. It's all the same to me, and as far as the government is concerned, the "civil" part is the essence of marriage, anyway. In a church wedding, the clergy pronounces the happy couple husband and wife "by the powers vested" in him/her by the state. The pronouncement may be part of a fancy ceremony with religious trappings, but as far as the government is concerned, God has nothing to do with it. Go ask any Justice of the Peace: marriage is a legal contract. And that's all we want.

8 comments:

Nan said...

Wow - very well reasoned and written, Ralph. I think perhaps that one of the things about the gay marriage issue is more of an emotional/symbolic issue than anything else. You have framed a very cogent article on the legal and contractual aspects. . . and while I do think it is an assumption by many that couples in long-term relationships "of course want to" "marry," many couples, gay and straight, do not. I think your perspective as one in a long-term relationship may differ from the outlook of a 20-something person saying, "what the heck?" We may be seeing the effects of a new generation of voters in the next 10 years with regard to this issue. What do you think in terms of generational influences on the topic?

Ralph said...

Nan, thanks form giving me the chance to expand a bit about the younger people coming up. It's definitely part of my thinking on the subject. Yes, I do think they may see it differently, and I don't necessarily think that's a good thing. When Steve and I
"got married" we saw ourselves as pioneers. We knew we were committed, but we also knew we were "outlaws." We meant to build a life together but we also knew there were no rules, since society provided none. Our attitude was, "since we can't have marriage, we'll just make up our own thing." "Marriage," even 30 years ago, was a 50-50 proposition in terms of longevity. We had a chance to create something new that might stand a chance of lasting longer.

Now, it seems, the younger folk have bought traditional marriage (no quotes) warts and all. It suggests to me a couple of things: their mindset is much freer than ours was to imagine such a thing, which I guess is a positive development. But it also suggests (I'd like to be proven wrong) that, because of the very increased acceptance we are now experiencing, they haven't been challenged to examine the institution, take what works, and then make their own creation that may work better for them. Gay couples have been doing that for centuries; now it seems they don't have to, and since they don't have to, they won't. They'll just take the line of least resistance and default to the old model, which itself isn't all that successful. (Present company excepted, of course!)

Nan said...

I couldn't agree with you more - on all counts. We attended the wedding of a very young gay couple recently, and I felt, just as I have when attending the weddings of very young straight couples, that there was little examination of what a lifelong partnership means/requires, and the prospects are 50-50 at best in these cases. Perhaps having to work all the harder, against all odds, to figure out what will work is part of what makes a lasting partnership. I think couples who struggle, and stay together and grow together have to do just that (within or without the "institution").

Ralph said...

You're so right, Nan. After nearly 30 years at this, I feel I know the secrets to a strong partnership, having discovered them through thick and thin. And another indicator of success: good modeling. Both Steve and I come from solid families. Not perfect, by any means, but solid. We both wanted that bedrock in our own lives.

Zoey and Me said...

Very good post Ralph. I moving it over to Cat.

Ralph said...

Thank you!

Kat said...

Ralph,
Having attended the wedding of my cousin and his now spouse Adam, I know how important it was for them to feel equality before the law knowing, finally, that their relationship was accepted as no less than that between a man and a woman. They were together as a couple with a strong relationship and will now work to define their marriage.

I think that what had long been accepted as a traditional marriage disappeared for many, whether hetero or homosexual, a long time ago. In its place is a union of two people committed to one another and their relationship. I see that difference in the marriages of my friends.

Ralph said...

I think you're right about the changing nature of marriage, Kat, at least among those whom we call "our friends." But since we all tend to live in echo chambers of our own choosing, I'm also aware that any change to the Ozzie and Harriet model ("traditional") is anathema to many others. We can only hope that "our friends: will gain the upper hand.