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Talk to me! Why Marriage Matters: Choice

Recently, I got an email from a long-time buddy in New York, with happy news: “Jim and I are getting married! Just a small wedding in June.”  Aw, how sweet: here were two guys I respect enormously—smart, thoughtful, actively engaged in the world—making official the commitment that’s been obvious to everyone for over twenty years. But what immediately followed was an interesting caveat: “in general I think the Institution sucks, and I’m pissed off that the “Movement” bought into this… I initially said no, then changed my mind later, mostly for tax and political purposes.”

I thought to myself in response, “Hey, at least now you have the choice.” Then I sent felicitations.

I can understand the ambivalence. First, we’re not getting the full package. Under the U.S. Constitution the several states regulate marriage law, and there’s some genuine benefit on the state level, regarding day-to-day rights as a family, shared decision-making, survivorship, even local tax status. But the real legitimacy of marriage is controlled at the federal level. For one thing, if you move from New York (or one of the other states that says you’re married) to a less-enlightened state like New Jersey, are you still married? That’s guaranteed for every couple, except us. Then there are the benefits derived from federal programs designed to be supportive of families, like federal income or inheritance tax rules, or Social Security, that any other married couple can assume.  Major items, not included.

Second, the volatile political environment of our times makes for a fragile legality. Witness California, where thousands of couples celebrated their vows—and held state licenses in their hands—only to be told months later, “No, forget that ever happened.” We all know that legal challenges are wending their way to the Supreme Court, but who knows what, when or how the justices will decide? All progress could evaporate in a day. Or expand exponentially.

Third, well, there’s this business about “the Institution sucks.” He’s talking about marriage, of course, and for those of us who remember “Movement” rhetoric from the 1970s, marriage was just another controlling tool of the Patriarchy, a straitjacket the we, along with our feminist sisters, would burn and bury. Let couples—all couples—be free to choose!

But a funny thing happened on the way down the aisle.  Practical gay men and lesbians began a quest to protect ourselves—at least until the revolution arrived. These efforts addressed both our legal status as individuals (anti-discrimination laws, hate-crimes protections, workplace policies) and that of our relationships, the most visible distinction we have as a minority, whether sexual (decriminalization wasn’t final until 2003) or familial (domestic-partner benefits and laws, adoption rights, stacks of contracts to get around the lack of marital protections: powers of attorney, unbreakable wills, joint-tenancy with rights of survivorship). Old leftists winced; perhaps they saw where all this could lead. Straight (gasp) to the altar.

In the meantime, those who did have access to marriage were performing some remarkable changes of their own. Divorce rates soared. So did the birthrate out of wedlock, and much of the stigma attached to it. Surrogate mothers, stay-at-home dads, pre-nups, palimony, blended families, open marriages. People were making new choices available for themselves. The patriarchy winced; that Victorian construct which was supposed to keep families stable and controlled, by social pressure or legal force, was falling apart.

Unlike other Western democracies, which saw marriage changing and adapted to that fact, self-appointed arbiters of American life—the patriarchy?—dug in their heels. They called out their religious pitbulls, and words like shame, irresponsible and the ever-popular slut ring through the airwaves and blogosphere. They want to punish, they want to deny, they want everything to look like a faded Norman Rockwell cover. Do they ever consider how their rigidity and lack of imagination only exacerbate the problem?

It’s fascinating to watch how same-sex marriage maneuvers through this scenario. I have a difficult time suppressing a smirk when I hear the sanctimonious argument that same-sex marriage will “diminish” other marriages. I remember discussions in the 1990s with corporate benefits administrators, fearful that domestic partner status and benefits would be abused by “signing up a new partner every Monday.” Yet, after a few years in place, I was told that domestic partner status proved to have the same longevity of heterosexual marriage—possibly moreso.

It seems to me—and I’ve been watching–that marriage in America thrives when two people choose to enter into it with a shared commitment of love, support, respect and mutual goals. Not into a die-cast formula, but into an environment of possibility and growth. Are mistakes made? Certainly. Can external and internal pressures overwhelm? They do. But success seems to come with an understanding of the choices made.

Who better to enter the discussion about marriage right now than same-sex couples who have kept their commitments together, without the benefits and protections of the law? What kind of new insights, models and creative solutions will we be able to offer once we’re allowed in the club?

While interviewing gay men around the country over the past few months, I have asked those in long-term relationships, in states where they can now marry, whether they would marry. Most said they were considering it, but with the ambivalence you saw at the top of this post.  I asked those in marriage-prohibitive states whether they utilized any of the marriage-substitutes like domestic partnership or protective contracts. Some, if they had access, utilized partner health benefits as a last resort, for coverage is expensive and not tax-deductible. As for the rest of the toolbox, to my surprise, nearly all said no. They hadn’t gotten around to the paperwork, or it was too much effort for the result. But I got the distinct impression that most were waiting for the dust of a social revolution to settle.

This is what I saw; this is what we did. Clearly, there’s more to the story that needs to be told. Add your stories and comments below, so we get a fuller picture.

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