1/30/2009

A Dose of Reality

About ten years ago I declared, in my naivete, that "I don't care what you call it as long as I have the same rights as married people!"

Like so many I thought that as long as we had laws on the books I would be protected, regardless of the terminology used for my relationship. I took the advice found in various books about wills, contracts, and the ubiquitous "Healthcare Power of Attorney" thinking that if I did all those things my partner and I would be protected.

Then I got a dose of reality. We purchased a home. My partner's name was on the mortgage because I did not qualify for the loan. No problem, we thought. We would just add my name to the deed at a later point and all would be well. Then we were told that if we did that the "full value" clause of the mortgage would kick in and we'd have to pay off the entire loan in order to add my name. Otherwise, I was just a tenant of my partner despite helping to pay the mortgage each month.

Whether this was true or not, it was what our mortgage company asserted. We did not have the funds to hire a lawyer to litigate the matter so for almost 10 years I remained a "tenant" in my own home instead of a part owner.

When we both faced serious and life threatening illnesses in the same year I found out just how shaky a "Healthcare Power of Attorney" could be when you are faced with doctors and nurses who are not lawyers and whose own prejudices can come into play.

Luckily, while I dealt with a transplant I had a great team who treated us with respect and dignity. Still, I was often forced to put my sister's name on paperwork as my "next of kin" rather than listing my partner, Michael.

When we began dealing with his cancer things became even more convoluted. We dealt with practices that were superficially supportive but privately opposed to gay relationships. I produced the Healthcare Power of Attorney to have office staff question me at length as to the legitimacy of the document. I was told at times that because we were not related that the POA was invalid because my partner had blood relatives whose desires automatically superceded our own right to determine care.

Luckily, it never came down to having to invoke the POA, but if that had happened we would have been at the mercy of others. We could not afford an attorney to litigate such matters if pressed.

I came to realize then that anything less than full marriage equality would be a sham. People naturally understand the rights of married couples but do not understand a "civil partnership," a "domestic partnership," or "civil union." Even if I had a "Civil Union" I would be subjected to explaining my rights constantly and even having to keep a lawyer on retainer to assert those rights if necessary. In other words, regardless of the individual rights bestowed within such a patchwork approach, the cultural perception would be one of less than equal. Because of that perception I would constantly be called upon to educate people on legal issues. Something no one should have to do in an emergency.

The word "marriage" carries weight. If we are forced to litigate our rights every step of the way because others want to make religious people who are ignorant of the separation between a marriage license and a pretty church wedding feel better, then we in effect do not have those rights.

Sure, if we can afford a lawyer we might eventually win in court. In the meantime, we do not possess the right immediately to make medical decisions for each other. We do not have the right immediately to transfer our property. We do not have the right to even take possession of our partner's body should they die and make funeral arrangements. In the intervening time between the emergency and final disposition there is no remedy for having others step in and decide, possibly, contrary to our wishes.

Civil Unions and Civil Partnerships have been shown to be inferior to true Civil Marriage. Yes, the word "marriage" makes the Religious Right cringe. Yes, the word "marriage" can make even our own radical fringes squirm because they want to be different from heterosexuals. However, in the eyes of the law and in the minds of the public the word marriage and its attendant rights and responsibilities can have no substitute.

All heterosexual couples are affored Civil Marriage. It is the issuance of the license and the signing of that license that confers the rights and responsibilities of marriage. It is not the words of a priest or minister. Religious marriage is completely separate and conveys no legal status. One can have a marriage performed by the Pope himself but absent the Marriage License it means nothing legally. It is the paper document called a "Marriage License" that conveys status, not the act of saying "I do" in front of a priest or minister.

Why do you think that all the words used by different religious people have no value in a court of law? The legal status is defined in the statutes, not in the religion. Some women are forced to repeat the words "I promise to love and obey" others just say "I promise to love." Still others might say "I promise to love and cherish." Does repeating different words by different religions change the law? No. Can a court punish a woman who said "obey" in the church because her husband told her to stick her hand in the fire and she didn't? Absolutely not. Because the words in the ceremony are just words. They are just lines in a play. The LAW is what is important, the paper, the word "marriage" and all that comes with it. Religion has nothing to do with marriage legally.

Perhaps all the billboards for "Bridal Fests" obfuscates this point for heterosexuals. Perhaps it is the Hollywood and pop culture notion that it is the act of dressing up and going to church or having a minister read pretty phrases on a beach is "marriage" but the reality is different. The pretty clothes, the candles, the minister, the flower girl and all the rest are just show. They are simply window dressing. The marriage is created at the moment the couple and a legally recognized representative of the government be it a minister in good standing, a notary public, a judge, or a ship's captain, put their signatures on the license. THAT is marriage. The rest simply ceremony and religious theater.

I've no desire for a minister or priest. Indeed, I would never step foot in a church for a ceremony of that type. What I do desire is the piece of paper that is given to every heterosexual couple regardless of whether they will marry in God's house, the courthouse, or the outhouse - the Civil Marriage License. I desire the right to say "I, too, am married and I assert my full and equal rights as a citizen of the United States of America."

I shall settle for nothing less.


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