We could enumerate our demands like we could count Madonna hits on our fingers: an end to workplace discrimination, sodomy laws and gay bashing; access to hospital visitation and adoption; the right not to be declared an unfit parent just because you were gay or lesbian; positive representation in the media; recognition of bi-national couples; and the right to political asylum based on sexual orientation or gender identity. The closest we got to marriage was domestic partnership, which we fought for and won in many places.
All of these things were so practical and necessary and all are still pressing issues somewhere, even if we’ve moved forward in other places. We wanted then, and now, to live our lives like anyone else without running head-first into stupidity, ignorance or violence.
Marriage, though, was different.
Marriage had baggage. If you were someone’s wife not long ago — and today in some cultures — you were his property. Marriage in history was about securing money, property and power. And for me, chronically single and compelled to chase after indecisive idiots throughout most of my 20s and 30s, marriage didn’t have a thing to do with my freedom as a lesbian. If you asked me in 2000 what the biggest issue facing our community was, I’d have said employment discrimination. Domestic partnership was important too, of course, and I was happy, single as I typically was, to fight for it. It made good, practical sense if you were lucky enough to hook up with a normal person.
What’s happened now that I’m beating the drum for marriage equality? Did I finally drink the Kool-Aid? Am I a patriarchy-and-heterosexuality-blinded zombie? No, and I still don’t like to be called anyone’s wife. I just got to the core of the thing: The difference between marriage and domestic partnership, aside from the fact that “domestic partnership” will always look better on a numbered administrative form than embossed in fancy curlicues, is a sense of dignity.
If we had civil unions under the law for everyone, and marriage were only a spiritual contract, then I’d be all over the domestic-partnership thing. But that’s not the way our culture does it. Marriage is the brass ring of agreements. The courts have held it to be the bedrock relationship of our society since the Magna Carta. (In fact, the 1879 Supreme Court case that upheld bans on polygamy didn’t mention morality; instead, it spoke about protecting the democratic system. If a man could have a dozen wives, he became, essentially, a despot.) In its most basic form, everyone knows, more or less, what you mean when you say, “We’re married.” Likewise, everyone understands why you sometimes need a divorce, but I once had to explain to someone, repeatedly, why she needed to dissolve her domestic partnership when the relationship tanked.
As the right wing reminds us, marriage is special and important — which is why we’re fighting so hard for it. Full marriage equality could happen as soon as 2013. It could move us dramatically closer to legal equality in all realms, regardless of if we’re single, married or otherwise arranged.
I get why some people don’t give a toss about conventional marriage. I’ll fight for their rights too. But most of us, LGBT or not, and me too, are inevitably drawn back to our cultural roots. It can be a beautiful thing as long as we don’t get all zombiefied about it.