Post 5.12 - The Evolution of Coupling

June 2011 has been an important month for change in the United States. June is typically "Pride Month", as cities across North America hold their local Pride celebrations, so perhaps it is fitting that there have been so many strides this month in the fight for marriage equality.

On Friday, June 24, New York became the sixth state to legalize same-sex marriage. On Wednesday, June 29, Rhode Island became the fifth state to offer same-sex civil unions. The next battles are expected in Minnesota, Maine, and Maryland, and the case against California's Proposition 8, repealing same-sex marriage in that state, continues through the appellate court system, and is expected to go to the U.S. Supreme Court before it is all over.

But as of July 24, when New York's law becomes effective, more than 1 in 10 people in the U.S. will be able to enter into a same-sex marriage if they so desire.

I support marriage equality from the perspective that we are a secular democratic republic, and the personal and religious beliefs of one individual or any group of individuals about matters of love and sexuality should not be the law of the land.

I am similarly not against polygamy, if the participation is voluntary and all parties can make it work. Too often, we have heard stories of young girls being forced to marry significantly older men, whether they be Mormon or Muslim, and join a group of wives. Any devaluation or abuse of women or girls I am, naturally, adamantly against.

But in essence, consenting adults should be able to marry each other if they want to, and the only way religion gets a say is if the people in question want to marry in that particular religion and follow their rules. If a religious organization (or religiously affiliated organization) accepts funds from the state or is the sole source of a vital service for a region, they should have to observe the discrimination laws enacted by the state. This is my only problem with the New York law, as they have a number of "religious exemptions" that I believe will come back to haunt them. A Catholic hospital, for example, would not have to recognize the validity of a same-sex spouse for medical decisions or visitation. When you're in an ambulance unconscious, you go to the closest hospital, so I think this is going to pose a problem.

I read an interesting Op-Ed piece, which I believe was in The New York Times -- I had intended to bookmark the article and forgot, so I apologize to the author in advance -- which discussed the problem with same-sex marriage for people who already have domestic partnerships in New York. Many companies and agencies working under the domestic partnership structure -- which applied to both homosexual and heterosexual couples -- extended benefits to partners, and now with marriage being legal for everyone, they may choose to extend benefits only to married couples again. This will mean that in order to continue to enjoy benefits like health insurance, couples may be forced to marry, even if they do not wish to. The author went on to express a concern that adults be able to define and/or codify their relationships in any way they wish.

I know straight and LGBTQ people who have no interest in marrying, even if they find themselves in a jurisdiction that allows it. But I also know LGBTQ people who have chosen the civil union or domestic partnership route because they have no other option available to them. I have two lesbian friends marrying in New Jersey, but they will have a civil union because there is no same-sex marriage in that state -- and I know they will refer to themselves as "married". Clearly, the New York domestic partner statutes grant legal benefits short of full marriage, but I am not certain how these couples refer to themselves if not as "married". I have yet to meet a couple that introduces each other as "my domestic partner" -- it is a legal definition, to be sure, but in my experience, it is often treated as something akin to power-of-attorney if the couple does not refer to themselves as "married", i.e., it is a private legal arrangement.

While I respect and understand that different couples (or more) describe themselves in different ways and want to recognize different levels of connection, I wonder if a multi-tier system of describing interpersonal relationships is a step too far. Same-sex marriage advocates have been pushing for full marriage equality because they are being denied specific civil rights, such as rights of inheritance, being considered next-of-kin for medical decisions, and tax benefits. In some jurisdictions, this extends further to adoption and legitimizing families in a legal framework. It is why "domestic partners" and "civil unions" have been considered inferior to full marriage, because they do not, by definition, carry the same rights nor the same symbolism as the word and legal construct of marriage. Similarly, to end such legal relationships, it is very clear that "divorce" applies to civil marriage; there have already been cases of couples attempting to dissolve civil unions but have been unable to easily do so, and no one really knows what the rules should be. We understand "grounds for divorce" and what they may be -- but what about dissolving a partnership or terminating a civil union?

Humans are inherently messy. Marriage, to me, is a method of establishing order and expectation on a human relationship of two people, and declaring that connection to the world. While two people can choose to have whatever rules they like in their marriage, there is an understanding of intent. For better or for worse (if you'll pardon the pun), people enter into a marriage intending a lifelong, permanent partnership -- two lives becoming one. While Britney Spears may get married in Las Vegas and divorce 36 hours later, or others may marry and divorce over and over and over again, for the majority of us, if we get married, we do not take the decision lightly. I am not suggesting that domestic partners or the civilly united take their relationships any less seriously -- as I said, they often refer to themselves as "married" anyway -- but in the eyes of the law and businesses and government agencies, it's less, not "separate but equal". I think it is natural, therefore, in the case of New York, that businesses and government agencies would now require couples to be married to extend benefits. After all, there is going to be the assumption that homosexual couples only chose the alternatives because same-sex marriage was not available, and the intent is to extend benefits to the employee's lifelong partner.

And then one has to wonder, do these arrangements conflict? If you have a domestic partner AND a spouse, are you committing polygamy? They are completely separate legal arrangements, so why couldn't one person have both? Would the employer then be required to extend benefits to both? As it stands now, with states refusing to recognize same-sex marriages from other jurisdictions, a man could marry a man in Massachusetts and then legally marry a woman in Virginia -- and these problems still have to be unraveled.

Clearly, the force of evolution in equal rights is gaining momentum, and we will eventually see full marriage equality nationwide and at the federal level. It doesn't mean the hatred and prejudice will go away, any more than racism has evaporated in the last 50 years. But by failing to get out in front of this and allowing each state to come up with their own solutions, we have tinkered with things in such a way to create unintended conflicts. This is not the fault of the same-sex marriage advocates, by the way, but those who would choose to deny those rights. The United States began by stating that "all men are created equal", and has spent all the years since denying that proposition, such that oppressed group after oppressed group must fight for the rights they should already have.

So to the point of the Op-Ed piece, what is the solution? Should we have multiple ways of describing relationships legally? Should we have a structure for extending additional rights to people who enter into such legal relationships? And what are the conditions for entering into such legal relationships? How far do we go with this? And how should we look at these other types of connections?

I think we should have marriage, open to everyone regardless of the sex of the two spouses. If you don't want to be married, that's fine -- but how many kinds of indicators do we need to signify a relationship between two people that everyone is supposed to recognize in some legal sense?

I'm not pro-marriage for myself, but I'm not anti-marriage, either. Maybe I'm just old-fashioned, but I view the traditional path as what is clearest and makes the most sense -- two people meet, they fall in love. They might decide to get married, or they might not. But that's pretty much it. I do view domestic partnerships and civil unions as imposed marriage alternatives, primarily targeted to homosexual couples. Heterosexual couples using these alternatives muddies the water, and it is kind of insulting.

And to the Op-Ed author, unfortunately, he has a point -- and New York should make some move to ensure that those couples and families already in established domestic partnerships should be protected from losing their existing benefits, since they chose the best option available to them, followed the rules, and have now built their lives around the construct. New York made the bed, so now they have to lie in it.

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