Image c/o chillicothegazette.com
I’ve never aspired to get married. To me, it is merely two people making an important decision to spend their lives together. That’s lovely, and fairly or not, it provides the framework of our society. However, I never saw it as much of an accomplishment beyond the difficulty of finding a suitable partner. I know it’s hard work. How I could I NOT know it’s hard work? Married people take every opportunity to let you know that the covenant into which they’ve publicly consented to enter is a job unto itself. Don’t get me wrong. I’m thrilled when my friends happily marry. I just don’t think of the parties being any different than they were seconds before they slipped rings on one another’s fingers.
Much of mainstream culture portrays marriage as a higher calling, a rite of passage that, if missed, will render you incomplete. I’ve never subscribed to that. My cynical view as an outsider to the institution of marriage was that self-actualization actually lived within the self. Sure, that’s egocentric, but how could someone who has attended countless ceremonies to celebrate a union from which he was legally barred do anything but build up years’ worth of a defense mechanism? With every free drink at an open bar or every time I watched a newlywed couple dance for the first time, I convinced myself a little bit more that I would be fine if I didn’t marry.
This is why I was so surprised by the emotional reaction that the Federal Court’s striking down of the PA Same-Sex Marriage Ban elicited in me. Statewide, gays were warned that a ruling would be coming down on the day in question, and I spent much of the day refreshing my Twitter feed waiting on official news. I had very little doubt that the ruling would be positive for the LGBT community. Since the Supreme Court struck down relevant parts of DOMA last summer, state marriage bans have fallen like dominoes. When the word finally came, I got a lump in my throat and teared up at my desk. I walked to the bathroom and had a moment alone. When you’re gay and spend years hiding, you learn quite early the skill of compartmentalizing your cognitive dissonance. That’s why I was able to reconcile that, even though I knew this day was inevitable, a small part of me also thought the day would never come.
Nothing should be that surprising about it, really. The outcome is so obvious. Public opinion has been rapidly shifting toward acceptance of gay marriage, and that’s great. (Not that the civil rights of a discrete minority should ever be subject to the will of the electorate.) None of the dwindling opposition groups were ever able to muster a constitutionally sound argument about why the rights and responsibilities of marriage should be withheld from same-sex couples. Many of the opposition’s arguments amounted to saying that gay marriage made them feel icky. Though everyone’s feelings are valid and should be owned, icky feels are not enough to deny a guarantee of equal protection. Gays have channeled decades of outrage into organization. That’s why we’ve become an emerging political power. And it’s why we almost always look so put together.
We fought because marriage matters. Simply, the freedom to marry the person you love is a basic freedom that should not be denied to anyone. Marriage strengthens families. When the option to marry does not exist for someone, that person is a second-class citizen. Anything less than marriage creates an unfair system that often does not work in emergency situations when people need it most. Imagine what it would be like to not be able to visit the person you love in the hospital, make medical decisions for them, or use family leave to take care of your loved one? As judges tackled the legality of same sex marriage bans, it became clear that they existed for no other reason than to marginalize parts of society. Judge Jones, who ruled in Pennsylvania, even went so far as to say, “We are a better people than what these laws represent, and it is time to discard them into the ash heap of history.”
Also, options matter! Just having the option to marry will change the way I interact with others. It will be nice to not be the object of patronizing pity from well-meaning married people because I’m not allowed to marry. There are plenty of reasons to pity me. Plenty! I’m only sorry that it literally became a federal project to take this one off the table.
Frankly, marriage is not enough. It’s foolish to think that the fight for equality stops at marriage when, in 29 states, including Pennsylvania, one can be fired for being gay. This means that in parts of our state, gays and lesbians can marry a loved one but wouldn’t be able acknowledge that fact at work without fear of termination. AIDS still ravages our community, especially among the poorest and least-educated. LGBT youth rejected by their families are more than eight times likely to have attempted suicide, more than six times likely to report high levels of depression, more than three times likely to use illegal drugs, and more than three times likely to be at high risk for HIV or other STDs by the time they reach their early 20s. The same week that the ruling was announced, I still had to do some internet research about a vacation locale to see what the chances were that I could be beaten or killed if my partner and I acted like…partners.
Marriage equality casts the LGBT community in a different light, and it’s progress at a rate no one could have dreamed a decade ago, but we should use this newfound equal footing in one area as leverage to improve all aspects of life for everyone.
On the day of the ruling, however, it was time to take a moment to celebrate. The ACLU, attorneys, and plaintiffs threw a celebration rally at City Hall, blocks away from Independence Hall, where in 1962 the nation’s first gay march was held. There were tears and hugs. Choirs sang. Couples lined up to apply for marriage licenses. City officials raised a pride flag up a flagpole. Someone handed me a sign that said “LOVE WINS.” So many friends called to tell me how happy they were for me. People laid their heads on each other’s shoulders, held hands, or ran into someone they dated years ago. I became nostalgic for time when I first met so many of these people, back when no one thought this day would ever come. I envied young kids celebrating who never knew this particular struggle for too long. Though everyone smiled, the tone of the proceedings was muted. Rather than gratitude for a right bestowed on us by others, there was contentment that we were finally starting to get what we deserved.
In the moments I used to allow myself to daydream about being married, I never thought what the actual wedding would be like. It was too dangerous to get invested in something that might never happen. One thing I would think about, though, was the actual marriage and how it would feel to want to be around someone – the same person — all the time, to share the same daily victories and defeats, and to know someone is always in my corner because he’s chosen to be. I’m not saying I want to marry anytime soon, but that option sure is nice.
Like many of my LGBT brothers and sisters, I’ve already figured out who I am and what I deserve. It’s about time the state started catching up.