Every day, several times a day, my partner and I ask each other "Will you marry me?" We have been saying this since a month after we met in March of 2003. Sometimes we say it with real hope and a belief that someday we can actually make it happen. Sometimes, though, we say it with a kind of resigned, wistful cynicism, as if we know it never will.
Less than 24 hours from now, the California Supreme Court will hand down its decision on the constitutionality of the state ban on same-sex marriage.
And now, we're looking at each other as if we don't dare to hope or believe. But the hope is growing, and I would love to believe.
Come with me after the jump, and find out why the word "marriage" matters so much.
He and I have been waiting for this day since February 12, 2004, when Gavin Newsom was brave enough to defy the cruel and unconstitutional law called Proposition 22, which denied me, my partner, my father and his partner, my mother and her partner, and countless other Californian LGBT people the right to marry the person they loved. We have been waiting for this since the horrible day when the marriages performed in San Francisco during February and early March of 2004 were nullified by this same Court. We have been waiting for this since Judge Kramer said there were no grounds for the state to deny us the right to marry. We have been waiting for this since that disappointing day in October of 2006 when the Court of Appeals overturned Kramer's ruling.
We have been waiting a long, long time for the right to marry each other. And my parents and their partners have waited even longer than that.
Why should it matter so much? Why is the word so important? We have domestic partnerships - shouldn't that be enough? After all, most of our rights are protected now, aren't they? Why should one little word matter so much?
Because the word "marriage," or even the possibility that it can happen, legitimates the relationship in ways that simple activism never, ever can.
Don't believe me? Well, then, I have some things for you to think about.
First, I challenge you as PortlyDyke on Shakespeare's Sister challenged her straight married friends to find out what it's really like being that committed to someone but without the legal or social recognition of the commitment:
Spend an entire week pretending that you're not a couple. Don't write a check from a joint bank account. Hide all the photographs in your home and office which would identify you as a couple. Take off your wedding rings. Touch each other, and talk to each other, in public, in ways that could only be interpreted as you being "friends". Refer to yourself only in the singular "I", never in the "we". When you go to work on Monday, if you spent time together on the weekend, include only information which would indicate that you went somewhere with a friend, rather than your life-mate. If someone comes to stay with you, sleep in separate beds. Go intentionally into the closet as a couple. For a week. [. . . ]
For those of you straight allies who are not coupled, but who want to play along, your challenge is (perhaps) simpler: Spend one week in which you make no mention and give no hint of your sexual orientation at all. When straight people around you are parsing the hotness of the opposite gender, go silent, or play along in a way that makes it seem as if you are part of the gang, but never reveals any real personal information. If someone asks you about your love-life, be evasive and non-committal. If you went on a date, and you're talking about it later, de-genderize all the pronouns, or consciously switch them (him to her, her to him, etc.).
I can almost guarantee you that you will not last that week. It will be heartwrenching, heartbreaking, stressful, demoralizing, stigmatizing. You will begin to see what it's like for those of us who are denied that basic but utterly necessary word. Imagine having to go to the hospital during that week. Girlfriends and boyfriends are not "family," in the eyes of the law, and friends are even less than that. Imagine your husband or wife needing emergency surgery when you are having to hide your relationship. Imagine not being allowed into their hospital room because the law does not recognize your partnership. Think about that, even if you can't bear to actually go through what we LGBTs go through on a daily and hourly basis. And think about the fact that we LGBTs can either risk being harassed, beaten, fired, and attacked for being open about our relationships, or we can be miserable and despondent and hide them from the world. Neither choice is good, or acceptable.
As you can probably see, the words "marriage" and "married" have a truly functional purpose in our society. They identify legitimate relationships to people who do not know your back history. And the idea of marriage is so strong that if you are not legally married, but you claim to be your opposite-sex partner's marital partner, you'll almost never be asked to provide proof. Those of us who are LGBT cannot do that. The word has incredible power, and it bars many doors to us because we're not allowed to use it legitimately.
Additionally, as pointed out by Dr. Robert Kertzner, marriage is strongly symbolic as well as functional. In a society where marriage is the marker of adulthood, LGBT people are not permitted to truly grow up. We are relegated to an eternal state of adolescence, and then vilified for not forming lasting partnerships or caring about family life or building long-term commitments with others. We're told we don't really love our partners, that it's all about sex. And some of us, despairing of ever having that social recognition and legitimacy, have said "Then the hell with this!" and gone on to personify every negative stereotype out there: the drugs, the diseases, the sleeping around, the devil-may-care behavior that all gays get stereotyped with. And as long as we're perpetual adolescents, we can't possibly be citizens on the same level as everyone else. We're always less than.
Think about the things that marriage allows you to do in public in our society. Holding hands or kissing one another in a public place. Sharing a loving look across the table, or the room. Silly code words and phrases that only make sense between the two of you and no one else. All of these things, taken out of the context of a legitimate relationship, are used to paint LGBT people as those who "can't get enough," those who "push it in other people's faces." And yet we live in a world where almost every advertisement, every television show, every movie assumes heterosexuality and a heterosexual life - including the 2.5 children and the white picket fence. We live in a world where straight people hold hands and kiss each other in public, and share loving looks across the room, and even walk around with living evidence that they have a sexual relationship - their children - out for everyone to see! And yet nobody calls that "flaunting it." Why? Because marriage is so powerful a legitimator that nobody would think to call it flaunting.
The next hours before the ruling is made public at 10 a.m. will be difficult ones for me, and my partner, and our LGBT friends and family members who are also waiting to be recognized as equal citizens. If the ruling goes against us, we will once again be heartbroken, demoralized, and stigmatized. Then we'll have to look to the horribly lopsided United States Supreme Court for our rights, and there's far less hope there than there is with the California Supreme Court.
If you know anyone who's LGBT, now would be a good time to let them know that, no matter what the ruling is tomorrow, you still support their right to step out of second-class citizenship. Let them know that their relationships are every bit as legitimate in your eyes as your own, and that you'll continue to fight for them to be recognized legally. And if you can be there for them tomorrow when the decision comes down, try to be there. They will be grateful for either the shoulder to cry on if the decision goes against us, or a person to share in their jubilation if the decision is in our favor.
Please support our rights tonight and every night. Even if - especially if! - the decision goes against us, your support will be worth more than you will ever know. Because, you know, it's equal rights, not special rights. That's all I want, and that's really all any LGBT person probably wants.
Yes, the word marriage matters. But it's still not too much to ask for, or expect, or deserve. It's what we should have had all along.