Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Red Herrings and the Elephant in the Room

[In case you're just jumping in here, this is the second of three posts on marriage.  The first can be read here.]

Oh, gay marriage.

For starters, let's acknowledge that this is a proxy war. Just like black civil rights activists weren't sitting at lunch counters because Woolworth's had the best fries in town and feminists don't protest at beauty pageants because they don't like swimsuits, the gay community and its allies are not pushing for marriage rights because they love gold jewelry and fancy cake.  This is not about marriage, but as I noted in Part I, marriage is generally synonymous with legitimacy and it is a pretty perfect symbol of social acceptance for this particular group.

Consider it this way:  most systematic discrimination is directed at a group of people who are then targeted individually for exhibiting whatever trait (skin color, boobs, etc.) identifies them as a member of that group.  I can't think of another group off the top of my head in which the individual has no such identifying traits except for their romantic relationships with other members of that group.  In other words, a celibate homosexual is a socially acceptable homosexual because there is no giveaway to the bigot that that person is someone they consider sub-human.  Since marriage legitimizes relationships in the public eye, and relationships are the characteristic that defines gay otherness, marriage legitimizes being gay.

So yes, marriage rights is an elegantly practical way to focus the energy of activists and supporters in such a way that each seemingly small victory carries way more weight than whether or not someone qualifies for health insurance through their new spouse's employer. 

While I'm more interested in the endgame of social acceptance, I don't want to minimize the real benefits bestowed by legal marriage, particularly where health is concerned.  On the one hand there's the fiscal piece:  In a weird coincidence, two gay men that I work had partners diagnosed with cancer in the past five years.  One couple has been together for about 30 years, the other for about 10.  Thanks to domestic partner benefits (which were negotiated into our contract very, very recently, just before these diagnoses), they were covered for treatment and are still covered for follow up treatment, CAT scans, etc.  Unlike married couples, however, contributions for a domestic partner are still subject to federal taxes, making it more expensive for a domestic partner than a spouse.  And if a health crisis ends tragically and the couple have shared assets or there is no will designating the partner as the heir, death can be crippling financially as well as emotionally.

[Quick digression here:  Can I say how disappointing it is when otherwise reasonable people who don't have health insurance make the ridiculous argument that goes something like, "Oh boo hoo, they have to pay more.  Well some of us don't have any insurance, so they should get over it." ? This might be my biggest all time pet peeve:  IF YOU DON'T HAVE SOMETHING THAT YOU THINK IS REALLY IMPORTANT, TRYING TO TAKE IT AWAY FROM OTHER PEOPLE IS NOT GOING TO MAKE YOU MORE LIKELY TO GET IT.  Seriously, folks, if you think health care's important, then grow a pair and start working towards universal healthcare.  The more people have insurance through their employer, the harder it is for other employers within that industry to argue that they can't swing it, so advocate positive change or just shut the fuck up, 'kay? --end digression]

Anyway, there's the fiscal piece, but also in the realm of health care, there's an access piece that is potentially devastating.  Because southern Maine is awesome and generally pretty tolerant, both of my friends were treated well by doctors and staff during their partners' hospital stays and outpatient care, even in a Catholic hospital.  The fact remains, however, that they are not legally family.  Without hiring a lawyer and drafting paperwork explicitly granting each other the rights and benefits of a spouse, gay people can be denied access to updates and information and even basic physical access to the hospital room their partner is in.  It wasn't until January of this year that the U.S. passed a law allowing gay people to comfort their loved ones at their deathbeds.

So yes, obviously there are some legal implications to marriage that are worth fighting for in addition the main goal of general cultural acceptance.  Why then, am I so ambivalent about gay marriage?

Well, because as I discussed in the last post, I don't think marriage is, nor should it be, the standard of respectability.  Furthermore, I'm not crazy about the idea of gaining acceptance and hopefully respect by seeking permission to cram oneself into an archaic and often restrictive regime with the mainstream.  Taking gay rights and marriage as separate issues, I fully support equal rights for gay people and furthermore support a total reconsideration of marriage.  I would rather see a new institution born from domestic partnership fleshed out to be inclusive of everyone without the baggage of history bogging it down. I'd rather see the law concern itself with creating legal protections and leaving the emotional and moral judgment out of it.

But hey, I suppose it took hundreds of years for marriage to change from a one-sided labor contract to the gold-standard of virtue and romance.  Maybe opening marriage to new participants will be as good for the institution as it for the newcomers.

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