Today people all around the country are celebrating “coming out day” as they have been on October 11 since 1988. The fight for Marriage Equality has been going on since the 1970s as part of the ongoing movement to end discrimination against Gay Lesbian Bisexual and Transgender Americans, part of the struggle for the recognition of Queer folks to win respect and recognition, to have pride in who they are. Much has changed over the past generation or two. Though a young queer person coming of age today still faces discrimination, the world they grow up in is radically transformed in terms of the public dialogue happening all over our country, in terms of role models available. The kids of our congregation, be they straight, queer or questioning have amazing role models to show them their power to be whomever they will discover themselves to be. They see great examples of committed long term relationships and I hope will learn implicitly that despite the high divorce rate in this world, that having a committed partner for better or worse, in sickness and in health is still a worthy goal. It might not even occur to them to think some of the committed partnerships in our congregation have been legally recognized as marriages, and others cannot yet be afforded that legal standing.
I used to think of Marriage Equality as mostly an issue of pride and recognition. I thought that marriage of any kind was mostly a symbolic act. A woman of my generation, I grew up knowing that I didn’t have to get married. My partner and I could live together indefinitely in a committed partnership. Why marry? But things did change once we became engaged. Somehow the word “fiancé” had a power that “boyfriend” did not. I remember talking to the insurance company or the credit card companies; and noticing the power the words “wife” and “husband” had to change my access to certain information. I noticed that my family treated Eric differently once we became engaged- they figured he was going to be around for a while and they might as well get to know him. When I ask the couples I marry why they are having a wedding, they often say it’s because they want family and friends to be part of their union, to make public their private commitment. I know that as a UU minister I can address that desire by marrying committed couples regardless of the gender of each. Marriage is a religious act, I thought, and no one can stop me from performing the marriage of two loving partners of the same gender.
But the very first couple I ever married had been together for 21 years. In California that is automatically considered a common law marriage. So I asked “why after all these years have you decided to have a wedding now?” The Bride-to-be turned with shining eyes to her husband-to-be and said “Because he wants me to have his pension if he dies before me… Isn’t that romantic?” Being much younger then, that didn’t seem romantic to me at all. Having lived now with my partner for 18 years, I understand a little more about what it means to be able to offer your partner substantive support, to be able to care for him or her thorough a life crisis. When I perform a wedding for a man and a woman, with the stroke of a pen I provide a legal status that allows for all kinds of support and mutuality. When I perform a wedding for two men or two women, I really am offering a ritual that is only symbolic.
The United States General Accounting Office has calculated that there are over 1,400 separate legal rights and protections that come along with a civil marriage. That includes 1138 federal rights and roughly 300 rights that vary from state to state. It’s kind of a mind blowing number- I sure didn’t realize that my wedding to a man afforded me 1400 special rights. I took for granted that a wedding performed in the state of Pennsylvania would be legally recognized not only all over this country but in any country in the world. I just kind of thought we were going to love and cherish until death do we part. The promises I made to my partner, witnessed in a Unitarian Universalist church and officiated by my minister were a religions matter, but those rights and privileges it grants me are a civil matter. Since our country is limiting who can be married based on gender, what we are really talking about here is a lack of equal protection under the law.
If, like me, you have trouble even imagining 1138 rights, The (NCLR) National Center for Lesbian Rights has broken it down a little:
o There are laws protecting married couples in the event of death- from inheritance, to bereavement leave, to social security benefits to decision-making authority over remains and funeral rights.
o Laws protecting the marital relationship include the right to support and care for one another, including medical leave to car for your spouse, to be responsible for each other’s debits, to file taxes jointly, which results in a lower tax liability.
o The laws protecting your relationship to your own children is particularly harsh to those who are denied the right to marry. Imagine having to hire a lawyer and submit to inspection by an adoption authority to adopt your own children? Imagine raising your child from birth to age 10, only to have your partner leave you and take your daughter with her, and you have no claim even for visitation as you are legally a stranger to your own daughter. Or imagine that your partner leaves you and your infant son, and has no legal requirement to pay any child support because again, you and your son are legal strangers to your ex.
Until we need them, we may not consider the benefits our employers provide to our partners. Beyond health care, which is a significant benefit to any family, there is the family leave act which allows one time to support a sick family member, and bereavement time to mourn one who dies. There are pensions and workers compensation which are extended to partners, and more. But federal employees who are gay have no protections or support at all for their partners. This became particularly visible in the aftermath of 9-11. The partners of Gay and Lesbian victims of the attacks were ineligible for employee benefits or government aid. Long-time partners of heroic fire-fighters who gave their lives to protect others during that national emergency, were unable to receive the support we expect any widow or widower of a hero to receive. Our UU Service Committee worked with grass-roots organizations like the Stonewall Community Foundation Emergency Relief Fund to advocate policy reform. Subsequently New York state issued a change in policy declaring surviving partners of gay and lesbian victims of 9-11 eligible for benefits of aid programs.
Now, it is great that first Massachusetts, then Connecticut, then Iowa, and now Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine have legalized marriage, but those laws don’t cover you if you travel; if you get injured on vacation, tough luck. It is great that California has a Domestic Partnership Registry, and Hawaii recognizes reciprocal beneficiaries. But once again those rights disappear once you leave the state, and moreover they do not in any way impact the 1,138 federal rights granted to heterosexual partners. Only a federal law can do that. That is why today, probably right as we speak, there is a march in Washington DC to ask for federal legislation extending the right to be married, and the 1138 rights that go with it to all committed partners who wish to be married.
I know that the journey towards full equality has been a long one, but we need to keep “coming out” in favor of complete equality, not settling for crumbs. Many of us thought that New York was close to passing some legislation last spring, and yet the bill still languishes between Assembly and Senate. So we have to keep a steady pressure on this issue until we have that full equality. Here are some ways we can do that.
First, our congregation will always be here to marry all committed partners in the witness of community and the holiness of our cherished tradition. I wonder if the queer community in the valley know that we are here to celebrate their union with them, and to recognize their marriage in the eyes of God, even though we cannot grant them the legal rights that only the civil government can give.
If you are in a same-gender partnership, the way you use language can help educate your friends and neighbors. If you have been married in the religious sense, I encourage you to use the words “husband” or “wife” and “married” and to publicly celebrate your anniversaries. Or you can choose to convey the secondary status the law affords by writing “domestic partners,” “reciprocal beneficiary” or “legally married in another country” on forms and applications. When the person accepting the form furrows her brow and asks for clarification, this is a moment for education. Understanding the relationship between these strange laws and real people may help educate America one person at a time. Said one Bradford County resident “folks here are very conservative, but they are able to appreciate good neighbors even if those neighbors are different.” This says to me that a conversation with a co-worker or neighbor may be more powerful and effective in the valley than a letter to the editor ever will.
For those of us who have the un-earned privilege of being married to someone of a different gender, we can relinquish some of that privilege by using the word “partner.” That way people will not always know the gender of your spouse or your legal relationship and will have to live in the ambiguity that such a word creates for all who use it. At our weddings and anniversaries we can take a moment of solidarity with our friends and neighbors who don’t have the right to marry, and speak that truth in a wedding ceremony or anniversary party. I married two dear friends a few years back and it was the first time I included these simple words “This day is made possible not only because of your love for each other, but through the grace of your parents and our whole society. We recognize the privilege Erika and Eugene have in being able to publicly witness their love. We acknowledge that it is a privilege not afforded to all in these times. In solidarity, we hope for a day when all people everywhere can express their love openly without fear.” At the reception a gay friend said he had never enjoyed a wedding more- by including those words he felt truly welcome, truly part of the congregation to have his truth spoken.
We can continue to work on the local and state level for change, but particularly in conservative Bradford County, our best efforts might be put towards the federal legislation that actually has the most power to grant those 1128 rights. The three areas that need our attention are:
1) Repealing the “don’t ask don’t tell” policy under which any military personnel who legally or publicly acknowledging his or her partner must loses career, pension, and military benefits.
2) Overturning the Defense of Marriage Act which puts a firewall between same-gender couples and those 1138 rights.
3) Providing domestic partnership benefits for federal employees. The Federal government is the largest American Employer, and civil servants should not have to choose between serving their country and providing basic protections to their partners and children.
4) Passing the Permanent Partners Immigration Act, which will stop the rending of committed partnerships between citizens of different countries.
There is a petition created by Standing on the Side of Love out in the Foyer that will allow you to express your desire for “Full and equal protection under the law for Gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people”
On the news you often see “people of faith” being outspoken on the side of denying folks their equal rights. Let us ask the government to separate church and state- we are not telling anyone they have to marry someone their religious forbids them to marry, we are only asking that the religious ideals of some not be used to deny rights to others. Because we too are people of faith: faith in the worth and dignity of all people, faith in the power of love, and the right to give and receive love, faith in the importance of committed partnerships and family. Let us stand up for our faith, and stand on the side of love.
The title comes from a children's story called The Duke Who Outlawed Jelly Beans by Johnny Valentine published by Alyson Wonderland Press.
Kotulski, Davina. Why You Should Give a Damn About Gay Marriage. Los Angeles: Advocate Press, 2004.