Why marriage matters to me

promoted by Rosi

I had shared this note with many of my friends after I wrote it last night while listening to the NY State Senate debate and not yet knowing what the vote was going to be. Some of what I wrote came from reflecting on my experience of spending many days in the New Jersey State House lobbying for marriage equality, my interactions with friends from both political parties and across many faiths, and some posts I’ve read right here on Blue Jersey. I added a post script after the vote was tallied. I thought I’d post it here as a reminder to some of just how sensitive and important the matter of civil marriage equality is to people like me. Read on…

It’s hard to describe to straight people just how important achieving the right to marry is for lesbian and gay couples. Perhaps if I could ask them to think about how they would feel if they experienced what gay people experience, they might understand. To my straight friends I would ask: How would you feel if some of your family members and friends insisted on referring to the person you want to spend your life with as your “friend” even after you tell them he’s not just a friend, he’s your partner in life? How would you feel if, after thirteen years of highs and lows, sickness and health, spent with someone you love so dearly, that a perfect stranger refers to him as your “boyfriend” as if you were people half your age who had only been dating for a short while? How would you feel if every time you fill out a medical form that asks your relationship status, there is no check box for “domestic partner” or “civil union partner” and that if you explain how that bothers you to the receptionist, you’re met with a look like you just spoke a foreign language? How would you feel if you didn’t know if, should you need to be hospitalized, your partner would be denied access to you or able to make decisions for you because he’s not married to you? How would you feel if everyone around you simply didn’t take the relationship that is at the center of you life as seriously as they do their own simply because you’re not married?

You’d feel disrespected, wouldn’t you? You’d feel like less than everyone else, wouldn’t you? You’d feel like even your own family didn’t respect you and your partner, wouldn’t you? You’d feel like you’re constantly having to explain exactly who your partner is to you because, not being married, you somehow feel you’re not entitled to use words like husband or spouse. In fact, legally, you wouldn’t be.

You see, for a very long time, I’ve insisted on the need for people like me to have the right to civil marriage with someone of my own sex because I understood that, in the United States, the word “marriage” has taken on so many legal rights, protections, and obligations that have nothing to do with “marriage” in any religious sense. I’ve always understood all the many ways in which people who can get married legally have rights that my partner and I do not have. In fact, I’d dare say I have a better understanding of the tax, legal and practical implications of civil marriage than most straight married couples do. After all, straight people have taken those rights for granted for a long time and have never had their relationships questioned by anyone. Straight people enjoy a privilege that is outside the reality for most same-sex couples. For me, it has long been about getting those same rights for me and my partner. I’m a practical person: I wasn’t interested in earning anyone’s respect for my relationship with marriage. I simply wanted, as a law-abiding taxpayer, the same legal rights as everyone else.

But I’ve come to realize just how hurtful it is to experience the other ways in which not having the right to marry is. For me, it’s no longer just about legal rights. It’s about dignity. I’m tired of having to guess at what word to use to refer to the person I love. I’m sick of feeling that every time I refer to him, that the straight couples in the room immediately put our relationship in a different, invariably inferior, category relative to their own relationships. I’m tired of introducing him to other people only to hear those people refer to him as my “friend.” I’m sick of filling out medical forms that remind me that my relationship just isn’t good enough.

For those of my friends whose religion or upbringing tell them that marriage is reserved only for opposite-sex couples, I don’t know what more to say. They should know by now that marriage as a legal contract is not an inherently religious institution in this country. A couple married at city hall is just as surely married before the law as a couple whose marriage certificate was witnessed and signed by a clergyman in a house of worship. No church or synagogue or mosque can ever, in this country, be compelled to celebrate a union that goes against their beliefs. But neither, in a country that has enshrined separation of church and state in its basic law, can any religious institution take onto itself the right to deny the entire American population certain rights that in no way affect that institution. They ought to know by now that what lesbians and gay men seek is the same rights that only civil marriage can afford. If they don’t understand that distinction by now, I’m not the one to educate them on the law, the tax code, and common business practice. Ignorance of the facts is no excuse for denying me my rights.

And if they still have a problem with me saying that I’m married, all I can say is that I pity them. I pity them that they are so wrapped up in their self-righteousness that they cannot see past their privilege and acknowledge my humanity, my worth as a human being and the value of my relationship with the person I love. I pity them that the teachings of their clergy have blinded them to thinking for themselves and opening their hearts to people different from themselves. I suppose many of my friends still harbor those reservations. I suppose many of them always will. I’m sorry about that. But they no sooner have the right to deny me my rights on account of those beliefs than I do to deny them their rights on account of my beliefs. I will never question the value or dignity of the love they feel for others. I would hope they would afford me the same honor. I’ll add that, despite all that, I will always have a lot of love and respect for all my friends, even if I can’t help feeling they do not share the same respect for me.

So on this evening, as the New York State Senate prepares to vote (not for the first time, alas) on extending civil marriage to same-sex couples, I hope my friends will understand just how very important it is to people like me. No longer just because of the rights it conveys, but because it will represent a recognition of my worth as a person. While barriers remain, particularly at the Federal level, at least yet more people will be able say they are married just as surely as any straight couple can say they are married. It is about dignity. Dignity of people like me.

Postscript: We won! Tonight, after much political machination and years of disappointment, the New York State legislature finally granted lesbian and gay couples of New York the dignity and respect they as citizens deserved.

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