At any given moment, I have five or six essays floating around on my hard drive that I mean to post on my website, but in honour of yesterday’s decision by the California Supreme Court, I’d like to post this one here as well. I do want to say as a preface that I am thrilled by the decision, and though I don’t have time to read the doozy of an opinion right now, the fact that the CA Justices applied strict scrutiny to orientation classifications make me so happy. But anyway, the following is more of a personal take on marriage, and why I think that we should have marriage for everyone, but civil unions, too:
Pink Wedding: Why I Support Gay Marriage, But Not For Myself
Gay marriage. It’s a topic that comes up a lot in contemporary American life, but I hadn’t really questioned or re-examined my viewpoint on the topic until I started reading a book called Sexuality and the Law (eds. Vanessa Munro and Carl Stychin) that, among other things, addresses the new Civil Partnership Act in England and its implications. I used to get rather frustrated with my father (and still do to some extent) for arguing that we should have civil unions, but not gay marriage, in this country, because of the tradition and religious implications of the word “marriage” (my father is an atheist, by the by). My initial response was, “What the hell? Separate but equal! Hello!” I didn’t personally want a lesbian wedding, but I did think that that could change “when it was legal,” or when I moved to a country where it was. Now that I think about marriage more critically, I’m changing my tune.
First, why I support gay marriage. I do think that having gay civil unions and heterosexual marriage, even if equivalent in legal rights and privileges, is a “separate but equal” situation. I think people should be able to choose marriage, for whatever reason, and have it, regardless of their sex. (I’ve also recently come to see orientation-based discrimination as sex discrimination. More on that later, perhaps). Sure, there are reasons to criticise the marriage institution, and in some ways I sympathise with the feminist critique of marriage, as well as with the critique made by some that it’s counterproductive for gay people to latch onto the straight institution of marriage – in other words, don’t assimilate; reinvent. However, I think that autonomy is key, and if you want to be truly flexible, norm-defying, etc., the way to go is to allow people to choose whether marriage means something to them. I also think that a critical element of this choice model is the availability of civil unions to both gay and straight people. I like the civil union concept, and I like the idea of equal access to marriage, side-by-side. Let me explain.
Personally, I don’t want to get married anymore, whether or not it’s legal. For a long time, my main argument for gay marriage was, “what if your partner is in the hospital and you can’t see them?” That, I have to admit, was a big fear. I have vivid memories of my mother and I going to pick my father up in the hospital after a concussion suffered when he slipped on ice during the Blizzard of 2000 – Raleigh, North Carolina’s only honest-to-God blizzard, at least in my lifetime. As we walked in the hospital doors, she warned me to keep my mouth shut, and then marched straight up to the reception desk and said, “I’m here to see William Faucette. I’m his wife.” At that point, my parents had been divorced for seven years, but hey, it worked. You couldn’t swing that with a lesbian partner, and so for a while I thought marriage might be worth it just for that.
Now, I see other positives to marriage. One big one is immigration benefits, because let’s face it, I’m not planning on living in the United States after I finish law school, and odds are pretty good that any long-term future partner will not be American. I’d like the chance to be able to stay with her if my working visa somehow falls through, and after studying US immigration law I know she won’t be able to follow me home. But aside from those types of benefits, I don’t see a reason to marry. In terms of religion, showing your commitment, etc. etc., there’s no reason that I can’t get married or (as I’d prefer) have a commitment ceremony that has nothing to do with my legal status. After all, legal marriage has little to do with the relationship itself. It has to do with rights and privileges, and a lot to do with economics.
For some people, economics are a big deal. I respect that. But it’s really not like that for me. I’m a career-oriented person, and I don’t want children. I don’t see a relationship as having anything to do with my individual career development, or how I earn or invest my money. Would I give a partner a loan if I trusted her and she was in a bind? Sure! I’d also be happy to be the only wage earner, if that was what she wanted. But I have no interest in joint bank accounts and jointly filed taxes, married or not. Not only can those things just generally be problematic, but I like to see a relationship as an emotional, social animal that is for the most part separate from commerce and career. I like the idea of not two people leaning on each other, but two people standing tall and holding hands. I think this can have benefits for the relationship as well.
So for me, this means I’m perfectly happy with a partnership, as my partner and I choose to define it. This doesn’t have anything to do with being “afraid of commitment.” I’m happy to commit. I just think there are different spheres of life, and for me, marriage and finance are separate. For others, this isn’t true, and the legal aspects of marriage may be very important. I fully respect that choice. And this is why I think there should be a choice. I support the idea of a civil union or registration option that confers some benefits and responsibilities, but isn’t equivalent to marriage, with its necessary co-dependency requirement. Legal marriage is essentially a commitment to support the spouse. That isn’t all it is, but it’s in there. That’s why divorces are messy, folks. Marriage is a package, and I prefer to make my economic decisions on a case-by-case basis. If this means a little extra time drafting a will, that’s fine with me. I do, however, think that the civil union option (again, available to straight and gay couples) would be useful in terms of conveying certain attributes of partnership status. Immigration benefits and hospital rights are two examples. Non-discrimination might be another. I think it would be nice, though, if the people figuring out what civil union will mean thought about a model that works well for independent people who don’t want to be penalised for their relationship, but don’t want to submit to financial obligations that are rooted in traditional marriage, either.