Something old

The “something old” pictured above: my dad’s hands, on his third grandchild, my daughter, when she was something quite new.

Robin Reagler, who writes the blog The Other Mother, has a blogging party/carnival thing going on, in honor of Freedom to Marry Week, which is happening this week for the eleventh year. Reagler, who herself is “not big on weddings,” still thought the something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue thing might make a nifty organizing device for a week’s worth of blogging carnival. I’m a fan, and I like a good organizing device as much as the next gal. So I’m on board. My first blog party.

However. I can’t join a matrimonally-themed party without weighing in on the complex topic of same sex nuptials.

I’d rather LGBT inclusion in the federal civil rights act were the issue of the day. But we don’t seem to be getting there directly. Meanwhile, I’m painfully aware that there are 1,138 rights accorded to married people by the federal government, and right now, I’m enjoying zero of them. In spite of umpteen years of paying my federal taxes, thank you very much. (Straight friends who’ve foregone their enjoyment of these benefits, in solidarity? Er, zero, and still counting. One lasted for a number of years, but finally caved when she was about to be deported. And Angelina and Brad aren’t really friends, per se.) I’m also aware of the impact those rights and benefits have on our children’s financial and legal security (here’s the Human Rights Campaign’s report, “The Cost of Marriage Inequality To Children And Their Same-Sex Parents,” in PDF form.) Yet in spite of these compelling factoids, the issue is still a sticky wicket, as many of you are well aware. Many others have done a better job than I ever could in parsing all that stickiness.

One such wicket parser is Lisa Duggan, historian and professor of American Studies at NYU, who published an astute piece in The Nation some years back, “Holy Matrimony!” As one would expect, if one knows her other work, this piece is tart and incisive. Her thumbnail sketch of the issue:

Statistics confirm what entertainment culture spectacularizes — marriage is less stable and central to the organization of American life than ever. There are now more unmarried households than married ones, and a variety of formal and informal, permanent and transient, solemn and casual partnership and kinship arrangements have displaced any singular, static model of domestic life. Political responses to these changes have long been polarized between those who want to bring back Ozzie and Harriet and those who are fighting for the democratization of state recognition of households, along with equitable distribution of services and benefits to Americans, based on how we actually live rather than on some imagined, lost ideal.

You probably are not surprised to learn that I’m in the “democratization of state recognition of households,” “equitable distribution of services and benefits to Americans, based on how we actually live” camp. Really, it’s a grand camp, one that many gay marriage proponents would gladly support. In response to the right wing “slippery slope” argument (herrings marrying chickens! people copulating with both fish and fowl at the same time, the whole lump all lawfully wedded!), she sketches what’s to me an idyllic post-marriage apocalypse vision:

What if there were a way to separate the tax advantages of joint household recognition, or the responsibilities of joint parenting, from the next-of-kin recognition so that such rights might go to a non-co-resident relative, a friend or a lover? And what if many benefits, such as health insurance, could be available to all without regard for household or partnership status? The moral conservative’s nightmare vision of a flexible menu of options might become a route to progressive equality! That could happen — if all statuses could be opened to all without exclusions, allowing different kinds of households to fit state benefits to their changing needs; if no status conferred any invidious privilege or advantage over any other, or over none at all; and if material benefits such as health insurance were detached from partnership or household form altogether (federally guaranteed universal healthcare, for instance, would be far more democratic and egalitarian than health insurance as a partnership benefit). Meanwhile, the “sanctity” of traditional marriages could be retained and honored by religious groups and families, according to their own values and definitions.

Frankly, I’d rank creating new cultural traditions, “according to [our] own values and definitions” among the top five benefits of being in a marginalized group. My beloved and I held our commitment ceremony over ten years ago, informed by tradition in some places, utterly unfettered by it in others. We held it to celebrate our love and commitment to each other, but we also held it to celebrate those who had shown us how to love. It was a lovely day. Not a dry eye in the Botanical Garden.

Duggan was one of the authors and signatories of the “Beyond Same-Sex Marriage: A New Strategic Vision” statement, issued in spring of 2006 by a working group of LGBT and queer activists. The intent is to knit the marriage equality issue with other larger social issues from which it can easily be separated.

The struggle for marriage rights should be part of a larger effort to strengthen the stability and security of diverse households and families. To that end, we advocate:

    • Legal recognition for a wide range of relationships, households and families — regardless of kinship or conjugal status.
    • Access for all, regardless of marital or citizenship status, to vital government support programs including but not limited to health care, housing, Social Security and pension plans, disaster recovery assistance, unemployment insurance and welfare assistance.
    • Separation of church and state in all matters, including regulation and recognition of relationships, households and families.
    • Freedom from state regulation of our sexual lives and gender choices, identities and expression.

The statement goes on to note:

Marriage is not the only worthy form of family or relationship, and it should not be legally and economically privileged above all others. A majority of people — whatever their sexual and gender identities — do not live in traditional nuclear families. They stand to gain from alternative forms of household recognition beyond one-size-fits-all marriage. For example:

    • Single parent households
    • Senior citizens living together and serving as each other’s caregivers (think Golden Girls)
    • Blended and extended families
    • Children being raised in multiple households or by unmarried parents
    • Adult children living with and caring for their parents
    • Senior citizens who are the primary caregivers to their grandchildren or other relatives
    • Close friends or siblings living in non-conjugal relationships and serving as each other’s primary support and caregivers
    • Households in which there is more than one conjugal partner
    • Care-giving relationships that provide support to those living with extended illness such as HIV/AIDS.

The summary statement is here, in PDF form; you can see more signatories and a longer version of the statement at BeyondMarriage.org.

We didn’t rush over to get hitched in San Francisco, my beloved and me, when all the fun broke out around four years ago this time. (Wiki entry on the fun here, for anyone who was so far under a rock that they didn’t know about it.) Our reasoning was two-fold: we remained ambivalent about the institution itself, like plenty of feminists and scholars of its checkered history — for fascinating reading on the topic, check out Stephanie Coontz’ Marriage: a History. The ceremony that mattered to us personally had already taken place, and really quite transcendently. It was also clear that plenty of our sistren and brethren were doing a good enough job of jamming up the City Hall — many of our friends, even the beloved’s mom and her sweetie, were among the 3,955 couples who got hitched. We schmooze monthly with a gal who edited a book about it, which includes the story of the nice lesbian couple across the street (I speak of none other than Cheryl Dumesnil’s Hitched! Wedding Stories from San Francisco City Hall ). The Know It All Brother In-Law was so moved by the City Hall surge that he volunteered there for days, guiding people through the maze. If any local police chief had turned a hose on the hopeful soon-to-be-newlyweds, we’d-a been over there quicker than you can say Bob’s Your Uncle. But it was a thing of beauty happening over there. It may have been a Civil Rights Era-style act of civil disobedience, but the resistance to the unjust law was being aided and abetted by the Mayor and a small army of city government workers thrilled by the opportunity to be on the loving side of history.

(Alisa Solomon had a very smart piece in The Nation, a few months after Duggan’s piece. In “The Wedding March” she casts an eye on the various public same-sex marriages and demonstrations, and the ways they fit — and stretch — old narratives of matrimony and queer revolt.)

My oldest and dearest friend, The Ex I Actually Still Talk To, got hitched to her sweetie in that love-and-justice-drunk first week in San Francisco. They got in line in the moist, chilly dawn and waited for hours and hours, in spite of her sweetie’s nursing a 103 degree fever. When her sweetie was killed in an accident later that same year — just a month and a half after their marriage was invalidated by the State Supreme Court — I witnessed first-hand the cruelty of their partnership’s legal invisibility. Their house, which they had been buying for nearly ten years, was re-assessed, and her property taxes shot through the roof. She watched all her partner’s hard — very hard — earned Social Security benefits get sucked back into the federal coffers, where they’re funding an unholy mixture of social services and foreign wars; she staggered through a legal thicket to get what concessions she did receive, all through the shock and grief following a sudden, accidental death. Most excruciating for me to witness was the fact that she did not have the legal right to have her partner’s body released from the coroner’s office to the funeral parlor. For that she had to wait for her partner’s parents’ approval. This after fourteen years of loving devotion, holding that body through sickness and health, good times and bad. The love they exchanged for those years did not need a paper from the city hall to be true. But oh, what that paper can do.

So if only same-sex marriage became legal, once and for all — let’s say, in advance of still further broadening of marriage rights — my beloved and I would probably amble down to the City Hall and get us some. I would grab a seat at the table, elbowing space between my various straight friends and family members I begrudged just moments earlier, they who would by then be long since past the soup and salad and already tucking into the entree. I would do this despite the solidarity I feel with the other potential table-mates listed in the Beyond Marriage statement. I would get me some marital benefits, becaue it was too painful what I saw my ex go through, freshly widowed. And I would get me some because of self-interest as a parent. I have a visceral need to obstruct anything that might part me from my kids. So much so that I would override the part of me that knows that my getting access to a right before it’s available to others simply prolongs its inaccessibility. Certainly I will be an adoptive parent to both my kids, when the second parent adoption of the boychild is finished, but that legal bond — as do all such bonds within queer families, still — feels too easily severable (or even dismissable) by others.

In fact, you can bank on it: every legal right queer people finally extract from the governments we elect and support will be immediately challenged the very next year by those who hate/fear us, and the “us” in themselves. Queer politicos spun the 2006 mid-term elections in a positive way because there were fewer anti-gay marriage initiatives across the country than in the previous election season. Not none. Fewer. And most of them passed, but by a narrower margin than others had in previous years. That’s our good news. And in the one state that defeated its anti-gay marriage amendment, conservative legislators have proposed yet another anti-gay marriage amendment. So I’ll take the legally recognized relationship I get to my kids via marriage, too, thank you very much. Only when I have a century between me and all this cultural, legal, and religious discrimination will I breathe easy. Which means I’ll be breathing easy up there, bobbing around in the ether.

There. The longest imaginable caveat to accompany a week of posts about something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue. Since it’s a big work week, most of them will probably be pictures anyway. I already said my thousand words.

What’s old? My father’s hands. And injustices. And the struggles against them. And the love that sustains us, whither the struggle.

9 thoughts on “Something old”

  1. Amen!! The time is always right, to do what is right — or says Martin Luther King Jr anyway, and I tend to think what he thinks 🙂 It’s only right that these unions be made legal, and so very disappointing that it’s still such a struggle for some to have those basic rights obtained.

    I have to believe it will change.

  2. Welcome back, and thanks for putting the ‘ah’ in Lesbiandad: or in this case, the ‘ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh’.

    Civil partnerships have been legal in the UK for a few years now. They confer next-of-kin status, legal and financial rights but not full parental rights.

    It was wonderful when they first became law as there was a wave of ceremonies of all different types to attend. We opted for a shotgun piece of paper CP, sandwiched between 2s unpredictable health and the financially ruinous brink of 4 mouths to feed. After 13 years it was both too little too late and momentous.

    1 still enthuses about the fairy dance she performed with other child guests at a more flamboyant celebration. ‘Civil Partnership’ is very much in her mindscape. She’s played civil parnerships a few times with an other CP attendee and mentions it herself when her future spouse is discussed.

  3. We’ve had “registered partnerships” in Denmark for very close to 20 years, and as anybody can see it somehow didn’t ruin the fabric of society.
    Actually, I think it was seen from the start as domesticating the somewhat anarkistic lives of homos – today it is definitely in the category of “but naturally”.
    Of course, the Danish equivalent of evangelicals are opposed to any step towards granting equal marriage rights (a very few bits are missing), but they have absolutely no say here – the religious party even failed to get into parliament.
    Good luck with your campaign. I think, by the way, that Barack Obama is your best bet.

  4. Yes. Precisely.

    I hate the fact that I actually get all excited about the possibility (or the fact, in our case, in Canada) of legal marriage, when what I REALLY want is a social safety net that doesn’t privilege any particular family form over another.

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