Why All Americans Should Stand Up For Gay Marriage
Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, September 21, 2003
Sharon Kowalski and Karen Thompson were in love. And like all people in love, their relationship had its ups and downs; its good times and bad. They had their share of quarrels and reconciliations and true and generous emotions. During the tough times, they stuck it out, they held on, because they loved each and were committed to each other. They bought a home together in St. Cloud, Minnesota; they symbolized their commitment to each other by exchanging rings. They were together for life, they thought.
Then, on November 13, 1983, a drunk driver smashed into Sharon’s car. When Karen heard about the accident and rushed to the hospital, they wouldn’t let her see Sharon, or even give her any information about her condition, because she wasn’t a relative—she was “just a friend”. Karen waited for hours, wondering if Sharon was even alive or dead. Finally, a priest told her that Sharon was in dire condition: she had suffered a severe brain injury and couldn’t walk; she could barely speak; she would require constant care.
In the hospital, too, Karen met Sharon’s parents (who knew nothing of their daughter’s long-term relationship). When Karen explained it to them, they exploded in disbelief; they ordered her removed from the hospital, and took over the care of their daughter themselves. They moved Sharon to a poorly-equipped nursing home hundreds of miles away and forbade visits from anyone except “immediate family”—not including, of course, their daughter’s soul mate, Karen.
Karen sued for visitation rights and the right to care for the woman she loved, and to whom she considered herself committed for life. She wanted to take Sharon home to St. Cloud, where she could provide her with the care she needed. She would spend nine years and over $300,000 in legal costs before, finally, thankfully, in 1992, a judge finally awarded custody of Sharon to her.
In Hawaii, not too many years ago, a gay man suffered a stroke and was rushed to the hospital. His partner of 20 years was turned away at the emergency room door, even though the pair had signed a legal document declaring their intention to make medical decisions for one another. Days later, when he finally was able to reach the hospital’s lawyers, they told him: “You can pick up his body at the morgue.” His partner—the man with whom he had shared his life for more than two decades—had died, all alone, three days before.
These cases are far from “isolated incidents”. They are part of the regular, everyday reality of gay and lesbian couples across our land. The stuff of made-for-television movies is the normal stuff of life for gays and lesbians in this “land of the free and home of the brave” all too often.
As Professor Richard Mohr tells us in his book, A More Perfect Union, under the terms of common law, it is widely acknowledged that “whatever is not be prohibited must be allowed”. In an age when gender distinctions have all but disappeared from the marriage laws (wives are not in any way legally subordinate to their husbands any longer, nor have they been considered his legal “property” since around the middle of the 19th Century) there is no longer any sound basis for the requirement that the legal form of marriage must unite people of different genders.
Marriage is, then, legally, as the Hawaii Supreme Court has ruled, “a state-conferred legal partnership status”. Certainly, such partnerships can exist between people of the same gender as readily as between people of different genders.
But marriage is also much more than a legal relationship; it cuts much deeper; it is a place where our physical personhood and our citizenship and our souls meet. Mohr reminds us that “marriage [is] a moral realityindependent of law”, and he presents an absolutely lovely description of what a real marriage entails:
From this required blend of intimacy and the everyday flow the vast array of legal rights and benefits which marriage entails. Marriage changes strangers-at-law (that is, people not related to each other by blood) into next of kin, with all the rights (and responsibilities) which this status entails—including the rights to enter hospitals, jails, and other places restricted to “immediate family”; the right to obtain “family” health insurance and bereavement leave; the right to live in neighborhoods zoned “single family only”; and the right to make medical decisions in the event a partner is injured or incapacitated.
These are all rights which are as equally relevant to long-term committed homosexual relationships as they are to heterosexual ones. They are not “special rights” for which so many gay people are lobbying. They are rights and necessities which should be guaranteed equally and equitably to all Americans. Yet, in all states except, currently, Vermont (and soon, perhaps, California), homosexual citizens are denied these rights because. by law, marriage is limited solely to couples of the opposite sex.
One would think that, both as concerned citizens and as men and women who strive to be religious, it would seem reasonable to us that relationships ought to be judged primarily on their own inner content and quality, rather than on some all-encompassing, universally-applied outer context. Dr. King dreamed of a world where people could be judged on the “content of their character” rather than on the color of their skin. Through fits and starts, over the past 40 years or more, we have tried as a society to live out Dr. King’s dream, sometimes successfully, oftentimes not—but at least, now if someone were to say that black people are automatically inferior to whites, just because they are black, they would be branded as hopelessly racist, stupid, and just plain wrong. Likewise, if a speaker were to carry on about the “innate” inferiority of women vis-à-vis men, they would be hooted off the stage, by all but the most misogynist listeners.
Suppose one of our children were to use the “N” word in speaking with a friend—watch the wrath of Mom or Dad that will descend upon them in most of our households—and rightfully so. But try to counter every time one of your children, or their friends, especially as they grow older, uses “gay” or “queer” or “fag” as a term of put down or loathing or disrespect, and it gets quite overwhelming and tedious. (I know; I’ve tried; it’s well-nigh impossible to keep up with them all without sounding like a broken record.)
In matters pertaining to homosexuals—and especially, to the concept of gay marriage—where are the traditional all-American notions of common sense and open-mindedness and toleration? Where has sprung the absurd notion that if heterosexual marriage is good, then, ipso facto, gay marriage must be bad?
As one of my colleagues has written:
Some argue that this is because marriage was established primarily for the bearing of children. But if this were so, “a fertility test as well as a marriage test would be required.” All churches and religions—even the Catholic Church, even the Southern Baptists, even all those other (self) righteous opponents of gay marriage-- will routinely marry a couple where both partners are (say) over 60, and well past child-bearing age.
Some say that gay marriage would undermine the family—but obviously, marriage, whether straight or gay, is about strengthening family bonds, and widening them, and encouraging commitment and stability in relationships. The overriding bitter irony of the gay marriage struggle is that it is those very same people who are so quick to charge gays with promiscuity who would most vehemently deny them the legal framework for monogamy. But that’s not surprising: bigotry is never rational, and such is the twisted reasoning of homophobia.
Most Americans—most people—I think—yearn to be decent and open-minded and respectful of others. Polls show that a majority of Americans favor equal rights for people of all sexual orientations: most people say that someone should not be able to be fired, or evicted from their apartments, or denied visiting rights in hospitals just because he or she is gay. But when it comes to gay marriage, those of us who favor it are still in a distinct minority. Anti-gay forces have seized upon this issue of marriage, as emotion-laden as it will be, as a winning political issue, and they have been frighteningly effective at it.
In 1996, Congress passed the perversely named “Defense of Marriage Act” (an Orwellian construct if there ever was one: by limiting marriage and truncating it we are “defending” it). The “Defense of Marriage Act” defines marriage as solely the union of one man with one woman. Period. No exceptions. But it goes further: It bars Social Security, veterans, and other federal benefits from same-sex couples in the event of a partner’s death or disability. It disallows same-sex couples from filing joint income-tax returns, even if their property is shared. Finally, in blatant and exceptional defiance of the Full Faith and Credit clause of the Constitution (in which states agree to respect the laws of other states), the “Defense of Marriage Act” declares that no statecis required to give any legal status to a same-sex union or civil marriage from any other state.
(Now, not even satisfied with this Fugitive Slave Act of our generation, the right wing zealots in Congress are pressing for a Constitutional Amendment which would ban same-sex marriage or civil unions in any state in the nation. And they are gaining too many “moderates” in support of this vile plan.)
“The flames of hedonism, the flames of narcissism, the flames of self-centered morality are licking at the very foundations of our society, the family unit,” said the bill’s chief sponsor, Congressman Bob Barr of Georgia, now on his third (straight) marriage.
Senator Trent Lott, then Majority Leader, declared: “To force same-sex marriages on the states would be social engineering beyond anything in American experience”—even worse, I suppose, than segregation or slavery, for which Lott still has seems to have this odd and abiding affection.
Senator Jesse Helms, in another great display of biblical scholarship and intellectual acumen, pointed out that “God created Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve.” (He also created Jesse Helms, which, to me at least, seems to undermine the doctrine of God’s omniscience and infallibility, perhaps.)
Thus illuminated by such august sociological and theological reasoning, the House of Representatives approved the Defense of Marriage Act by a vote of 342 to 67 (with even Massachusetts’ [supposedly] ultra-liberal, all-Democratic delegation split down the middle). The Senate passed it 85 to 14, and (in the middle of a re-election campaign), President Bill Clinton denounced the measure (to gay audiences, at least) as “cynical and divisive”, but (typically) signed it anyway, citing his strong personal conviction that same-sex marriage is wrong. (We all know about President Clinton’s strong personal convictions on the matter of marriage.)
Why this strong, almost elemental revulsion to gay marriage, even on the part of otherwise well-meaning and rational men and women? Why do straight Americans feel so beleaguered? Why are so many of us so threatened by the idea that two men or two women should commit to one another, in the eyes of church and state, in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health, till death do them part?
It is my considered believe that, in our modern culture, and especially in this particular corporate, militarized society in which we live, our families-- and our marriages-- are under assault more than ever. They are under assault from a debased and commercialized media and popular culture which has reduced all values to market values and seeks to define our precious humanity solely in terms of our consumer habits. They are under assault from an economic system which has savaged family life and community spirit, which has exhausted and demoralized working people of all economic strata. They are under assault from a zealous and extremist political leadership which has raided the public treasury, debased the public sector, and demeaned and disgraced our nation in the eyes of the world.
The enemies of our marriages and our families are not our gay and lesbian neighbors who want no more than to live in peace and enjoy the same rights guaranteed to all Americans. They are, rather, our allies in a deepening, widening struggle for the sake of our national soul and our individual souls. They can remind, through their love for one another, through their commitment to one another, of the magic and mystery—the deeper purposes and truer meanings—at the hearts of our own marriages.
As Mr. Twig tells Mr. Garrison in South Park, “If we could choose those we love, it would be much simpler. But much less magical.” We can not choose who we love. But we do choose, each of us, straight or gay or somewhere in-between, how we will live our love in this world.
Twenty-five years ago, this very month (a quarter century already!), I made my choice to commit myself to another soul in the deepest of human relationships. It was the best choice I ever made in my life, and it has blessed me in countless ways in the 25 years of real living that have followed.
Every time I officiate at a wedding ceremony, and hear the vows of the couples that stand before me, I renew my vows and relive that day 25 years before. It does not matter if I’m having a good day or a bad one; if it’s been a beautiful ceremony or a lackluster one. It does not matter, truly, if the couple before me is a man and a woman, or two women, or two men.
Any doubts I have about the efficacy of gay marriage dissolve in the eyes of the two people who love one another who are standing before me. For reflected in their love, I see my own. And I know that no power of church or state should be able to stand in the way of the full flowering of that love—and of my right (and my responsibility) to live that love in a spirit of hope and justice.
For me, living out my own love in this world, and living out my own marriage vows and remaining true to them, means doing all I can (as imperfect and limited as that will be) to guarantee that right to all of my brothers and sisters in this land of ours.