Ingrid and I are getting married at City Hall today. I'm scheduling this post so that, in theory, it should go up right around the time we say "I do." This piece was originally published on the Blowfish Blog; it's been edited in small ways to bring it up to date.
As you all no doubt know unless you've been hiding under the blankets for the last month, the California Supreme Court recently ruled that the ban on same-sex marriage violates the state Constitution. Same-sex couples are now able to legally marry in California.
My partner and I are going to be one of those couples.
And I want to talk a little bit about why.
One of the questions that gets raised a lot when the subject of same-sex marriage comes up is, “Why is marriage so important? Why aren't civil unions or domestic partnerships good enough?”
The usual answers are practical ones. And I'll certainly second them. Marriage is recognized around the country and around the world, and all its practical and legal rights and responsibilities get carried with you everywhere you go... in a way that is most emphatically not true for civil unions and domestic partnerships. Besides, it's a well- established principle that “separate but equal” is inherently not equal. The very act of saying, “No, you can't have this thing that everyone else can have, but you can have that other thing we created just for you that's almost exactly like it -- isn't that special?” It's the creation of second-class status, pretty much by definition.
But I want to talk about something else today. I don't want to talk about the legal and practical benefits of marriage. I don't want to talk about hospital visitation rights, child custody rights, inheritance rights, tax benefits, all that good stuff. That's all important, but it's also well-covered ground.
I want to talk about something more intangible. I want to talk about why we're getting married... apart from all that.
Marriage is an unbelievably old human institution and human ritual. My parents did it. My grandparents did it. My great-grandparents did it, and theirs, and theirs. The word and the concept carry a weight, a gravitas, intense and complex social and emotional associations, from centuries and millennia of people participating in it. And as far as I know (admittedly my anthropology is a bit weak), it's existed in one form or another in almost every human society, in almost every period of human history. There may be exceptions, but I don't offhand know of any. Getting married means being a link in a chain, taking part in a ritual that's central to human history and society.
Yes, much of that history and many of those associations are awful. Sexist, propertarian, oppressive. But the evolution of the institution from its complicated and often terrible history into what it is today is part of what gives it its weight. The history of marriage, and its growth away from ownership and towards equal partnership, is the history of the human race’s maturation. Participating in it means participating, not just in the history and the ritual, but in its growth and change.
Civil unions and domestic partnerships just don't have that.
Let's look at the recent Supreme Court ruling in California. Let's look at what it won't change for my partner and me... and what it will.
On a day- to- day level, it probably won't change much. We're domestic partners, and California domestic partnership does afford most of the legal rights and responsibilities that marriage offers. Within the state, anyway. As long as we stay in the state, not much changes in any practical sense.
And I doubt that much will change between her and me. We had a commitment ceremony two and a half years ago: a joyful, exuberant, larger- than- we’d expected celebration that we spent many months planning. That ceremony and celebration, and everything we went through to make it happen, did change our relationship, profoundly, and very much for the better. I doubt that our legal wedding today will have anywhere near that same impact on how we feel about each other.
But it will almost certainly change how we feel about society, and our place in it. And it will change -- officially -- how society feels about us.
When we get married today, the State of California will officially recognize that our relationship has the same weight as our parents' did, and their parents', and theirs. It will officially drop this “separate but equal” bullshit. It will officially stop seeing us as kids at the little table, poor relatives who should be content with leavings and scraps, second-class citizens. It will officially see us as actual, complete, honest- to- gosh citizens.
Look at the patchwork of laws around this country regarding same-sex marriage. Look at the states that have banned it, and the ones that have gone so far as to ban the recognition of same-sex marriages performed in other states. Look at the fact that if my partner and I travel to Alabama or Michigan, Alaska or Pennsylvania, or any of over two dozen other states, our marriage will be seen as not having existed at all. Null. Void. Look at the Defense of Marriage Act, passed by Congress and signed by President William Jefferson Clinton in 1996, stating that the Federal government will not recognize same-sex marriages, even if they're completely legal in the state where they were performed.
What does that tell you about how those states, and the country as a whole, sees us?
That's the weird paradox of the California ruling. It's thrilling. It's unbelievably great news. It's a huge historical step. But at the same time, it throws the true meaning of this legal patchwork into sharp focus. It makes it that much clearer that queers in this country are, in a very literal sense, second-class citizens. We pay taxes, we serve on juries, we have to obey the same laws that everyone else does... but in a very practical, codified- into- law sense, we just don't count for as much.
Legalizing same-sex marriage isn't just about the legal and practical recognition of our love and our partnership. It's about social recognition. It's about being seen as a full member of society. Kudos for the California Supreme Court for understanding that. Let's hope the rest of the country figures it out eventually.
Important note: As powerful and historic as this step is, it could be undone. In November, there will be an initiative on the California ballot, asking voters to amend the state Constitution and ban same-sex marriage. If you think this issue and this movement are important, please consider supporting Equality California.