Personal Voices: Why Marriage Matters

My sweetheart and I applied for our marriage license this morning. After our wedding on Sunday, we will be one of the first same-sex couples legally married in Massachusetts.

In 1994 we had a commitment ceremony , which was our romantic and religious wedding. We've been asked why we also feel the need to "get a piece of paper from City Hall."

It's true that this year's legal wedding will not change the bond between the two of us or between us and our loved ones. But it does change the connection between us and the state in a surprisingly moving way. When we got together, we assumed that ours was a private arrangement that officially didn't exist. On tax forms, on health insurance forms, and at rental car counters, we appeared to be two single women.

This disjuncture between official status and reality was something we have taken for granted. Of course we are outsiders. As for most lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people over the centuries, it was inconceivable for us to imagine being enfranchised in the society.

In many times and places, the laws of the land have not recognized the full humanity of everyone in the society. Just as the law expanded to recognize the voting rights of women, the civil rights of African Americans, and the end of apartheid in South Africa, Massachusetts law has now expanded to legitimate the love of lesbian and gay couples. Not only these couples find their relationship with the state transformed by this change, but also everyone in Massachusetts who now lives under a less repressive government.

We are actually a minority among our progressive friends in being this enthusiastic about same-sex marriage. Some point out that it won't end all the many harmful forms of homophobic discrimination, violence, and social stigma, and that it could be a distraction from working to eliminate these problems. But we hope that in a generation or two, a tradition of legal same-sex marriages will in fact create a safer and more accepting environment for all LGBT people.

Some progressive folks equate gayness with experimentation in sexual freedom or lifestyle innovations, and see gay marriage as assimilation into a repressive society of cookie-cutter families. To these friends, we have two answers: First, middle age happens. With or without legal marriage, many LGBT folks are, like us, already focused more on mortgages, health care and children than on lifestyle experiments. Much as we admire some of our less traditional friends, if we are in fact settled and faithful, why not let that be recognized as it is for straight couples? Second, old age and death happen, and with them concerns about survivor benefits, hospital visitation, inheritance and end-of-life wishes.

Feminists who came of age during the 1970s look askance at marriage as the embodiment of women's subordination. And it is true that marriage has at times meant women as property, wives obeying husbands, and women losing the right to own assets. Some of our closest friends are committed heterosexual couples who have foresworn legal marriage, not just as allies to gay couples, but also to avoid sexism.

But between two women, the meaning of marriage is different. And as E.J. Graf writes so eloquently in What Is Marriage For?, feminists have already transformed the institution of marriage in an egalitarian direction, into a non-compulsory bond of love between equals. Same-sex marriage pushes the institution irretrievably farther in that direction. Social conservatives are right to be threatened by gay marriage. It doesn't threaten families based on love, but it does threaten their ideal of compulsory female subordination. All women will be freer when gay marriage is a universal option.

There is a cult of coupledom in this country, and we are not true believers. Most happy people have more than one person they can turn to for support, despite what pop songs say. And in the face of President Bush's $1.5 billion proposal to encourage low-income people to marry, it's important to say that marriage is not a cure-all for poverty, especially with so many men unemployed or in jail. Women need the option of living independently, via family wages and a welfare safety net. Going back to some imagined "good old days," with husband breadwinners and unpaid wives who cared for children and elderly and disabled family members without need for government assistance, is not a realistic social policy. "Marriage promotion" is a futile attempt to privatize more human services into families. Gay activists have sometimes played into this right-wing agenda by extolling marriage as the most important building block of society.

We, like other committed couples, will be there for each other in disability, unemployment and old age as best we can. That doesn't eliminate the need for public safety nets like Social Security and Medicaid. Once we marry, Gail will be able to join my employer's group health plan. But rationing health care according to family status and employment is absurd. Though it's great that a few more couples will get benefits thanks to gay marriage, everyone should get health care just by being human.

But not all benefits associated with marriage are absurd. A committed life partnership should guarantee hospital visitation, not testifying against each other, automatic health care proxy, survivor retirement benefits, immigration rights, second-parent adoption rights, and presumed and untaxed inheritance. There's no reason but homophobia to deny these to same-sex couples. Across the United States and around the world, most still can't have them.

It's not just those nitty-gritty rights we want, but the intangible recognition that goes with the word "marriage." We are, by luck and the grace of God, an extraordinarily well-matched, happy couple, seen as an institution by our friends and family. This wedding begins to enfranchise us as we always should have been enfranchised.

Betsy Leondar-Wright is an economic justice activist from Arlington, Massachusetts.

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