05 May 2005

17. Laws Against Same-Sex Marriage

Dear laws against same-sex marriage,

I used to dream that I would get married someday. That's not too surprising; I grew up in a society with lots of ideas, images, and assumptions about marriage, the kind that get repeated rhetorically by the politicians who claim we need laws like you to protect the foundation of a stable society. Big deal. But regardless of what I absorbed or learned, or whether our society is stable or not, I didn't have a stereotypical little girl's dreams about my wedding day, ceremonies, spectacle, big fancy dresses that would never be good for any other occasion, or even about cake. I'd learned from my parents pretty early on that the ceremonial parts of marriage are a big hoopla mostly for the benefit of the friends and family of the couple getting married, and that people who sign papers at City Hall with a minimum number of witnesses are just as married as the folks who shell out big bucks for a celebration with all the trimmings. My parents got married because otherwise my mother wouldn't have had very many rights in the United States when she came here with my father, and because it made my grandmother happy — though I don't doubt that Oma had been quick to point out the pragmatic benefits of having their relationship legally recognized. My mother never had a white wedding dress, but instead a brown one she wore to many other occasions, and when she was unhappy with the hairstyle inflicted on her by a salon staff over-eager to cater to a bride, she washed it out. That's the kind of woman my mother is, and although we have our differences about plenty of other things, I admire her for this story. I have relatives who lived together in longterm committed relationships that lasted years before legal marriage. One pair of family friends married when he was drafted to go to Vietnam, so that she could collect widow's benefits if the worst came to pass; years later they divorced and continued living together when that arrangement proved more financially beneficial. My family didn't go to church, so the question of whether a marriage was civil or religious wasn't really an issue. So my view of marriage was never religious or romantic, but more practical. And my dreams of marriage were less about ceremonies and flowers, and more about sharing my life with someone and living happily ever after, more or less like my parents did (just don't tell them I said that).

My dreams began to turn sour in 1996, when former U.S. President Clinton signed the Defense of Marriage Act — and when I started to realize that I could be attracted to females as well as males. It was an eye-opening experience, realizing that the law would recognize and support my relationship only if I loved a member of the opposite sex. (And if you'll tolerate one more brief flashback to my childhood, I'd like to point out that the first time I can remember talking to anyone about homosexuality, it was defined in terms of marriage: "gay" was when a man wanted to marry another man, or a woman wanted to marry another woman. Chew on that awhile.) Anyway, I was angered and disgusted by DoMA, and like I said before, whatever sweet marriage dreams I might have had gradually turned sour, and finally bitter, in the following years, as more and more states passed discriminatory laws to limit the definition of marriage to "one man, one woman". These laws prompted me to learn more about the other ways marriage discriminates (why can't bureaucrats create paperwork that separates us into "married" and "unmarried", instead of assuming that the opposite of "married" is "single"?) and better understand my dissatisfaction with the legal and social institution of marriage (again, the religious aspects weren't really relevant to me). In 2000, when the state of Vermont created its same-sex civil unions, the state of California, where I was living at the time, passed its own law — Proposition 22 — so it could refuse to recognize even marriage-like legal relationships created in other states. Today the United States government spends millions to promote marriage as an alternative to welfare, as if somehow it's better for children to suffer poverty as long as their parents are wearing wedding rings — I could go on and on, but I'm getting ahead of myself.

In 2004, almost the present day, the United States Senate debated a proposed Constitutional amendment that would deny marriage rights to same-sex couples. (I won't say "once and for all", because Prohibition was struck down, but that took a Constitutional amendment, too, and years of misery in between.) Needless to say, the proposed amendment would have been an added layer of redundancy on top of all the unfair laws passed over the years since DoMA, but I wasn't as angry or disgusted as I was in 1996 or 2000. Instead, I was disappointed and sad, even after the amendment failed to pass. Later that year, the state of Oregon, where I live, responded to the city of Portland's decision to grant marriage licenses to same-sex couples by passing its own "one man, one woman" referendum, Measure 36. Five months later, I still can't bring myself to take down our sign protesting its injustice.

In 1996, marriage was just a hypothetical possibility for my future. In 2004, after six years with the same partner, it broke my heart to know that although we, as an opposite-sex couple, could have our relationship legally recognized, we could have at best a pale imitation of such protections and support if we were a same-sex couple. I still hope that someday things will change, that laws will be rewritten to treat all couples equally, but for now all I have is hope. Same-sex marriage is still only legal in one state in the U.S., and it still isn't enough for its opponents to know that same-sex couples are largely excluded from the rights and privileges extended to married people, even by the highest law of the land. Even civil unions, domestic partnerships, and reciprocal beneficiary status are controversial, and as if to highlight their separate but hardly equal status, laws providing such limited legal alternatives to marriage routinely exclude opposite-sex couples like me and my partner. I don't dream of getting married anymore, and it's largely because of laws like you.


Started 23 February 2005, posted 4 May 2005, updated 20 October 2005. Title abridged 1 December 2011.