Often when the subject of marriage equality comes up there is talk of the financial benefits of marriage, especially in America where everything is typically reduced to the bottom line of expenses and profits, where people often look most to whether something can make them money regardless of their moral position on an issue. The wedding industry, photographers, vacation spots all will see a boon to their business with same-sex marriage, so that makes it more acceptable. With any issue in this country proponents have to prove what it can do economically rather than whether it is ethically the right thing to do. If business makes money from something like same-sex marriage, if the queer folks want to spend thousands of dollars on lavish weddings just as most of their heterosexual counterparts do, then let’s go for it. It’s good for the economy!
For the individuals getting married there can be huge benefits also, both financially and in other ways. Among the many financial benefits are the following: the ability to file joint income tax returns, which can save both partners money; being the one to inherit the spouse’s property in the event of a death; qualifying for survivor benefits from Social Security, Veterans’ Administration, retirement accounts, etc.; exemption from gift or inheritance taxes; getting family rates for insurance, health clubs, and more. There are hundreds of financial benefits to marriage–these are only a handful of the more important ones.
In addition marriage offers protection in other ways. For example, if one partner of an unmarried couple gets ill and is hospitalized the next of kin are the ones who can make important medical decisions. They can also prevent an unmarried partner from even seeing their loved one. The partner has no rights in this case. The family can plan a funeral without consulting the loving partner if the two are unmarried. While same-sex couples can adopt in some states it can be much more difficult as single partnered parents and in some cases it can be next to impossible to qualify to adopt as unmarried partners. This list could go on and on also.
But to fully appreciate the incredible impact of marriage equality one has to look not just at financial and other benefits. There are emotional benefits as well. One has to look at the history of living life as a queer person in this country to get the full picture of how important the securing of marriage equality is to a gay person.
A little more than half a century ago it was illegal in many places for gay people to even congregate together. A man could be arrested for going to a meeting with several other gay men. Gay bars were raided regularly and those arrested had their names published in newspapers and faced the loss of their jobs and families as a result. Gay men and lesbians were regularly fired from jobs simply for being found to be queer. The government refused to allow homosexual men and women to serve in the military or in any kind of position with security clearances. The government spied on queer organizations. Magazines that promoted the “homosexual lifestyle” could be confiscated and the publishers jailed on obscenity charges. Young gay men and women were hospitalized in mental institutions and treated with electroshock therapy. They were considered mentally ill simply for being who they were. It wasn’t until 1973–just forty years ago–that homosexuality was delisted as a mental illness by the American Psychiatric Association, but the stigma of it lingered for years.
The Stonewall Rebellion, considered the watershed moment of the modern gay rights movement, was in 1969, not even fifty years ago. At that time the vast majority of gay men and lesbians were in the closet. Many families would disinherit children suspected of or known to be gay. Friends would sever the friendships. Queer people faced vitriol from every quarter. Most of us who are of a certain age have known people who were either beaten or murdered or have been threatened with violence or suffered it ourselves.
I came out in 1979 in the small town of Platteville, Wisconsin. It was ten years after Stonewall and in that decade queer people had started to come out publicly, but we were still not accepted by society at large. It took more than a quarter century of additional work and thousands upon thousands more people coming out in order for others in the country to realize that there was pretty much no one who did not have a family member, co-worker, or friend who was gay. That national coming out process humanized gay people, but it took time. We were no longer hidden in secret gay bars where patrons had to enter through back doors with elaborate passwords. We were finally seen as part of the human family.
Despite that there is still much work to be done. Laws still stand on the books that allow for discrimination against LGBT people. While marriage equality has now come to the majority of the states (or at least will be there very shortly) equality in general is still lacking. There are still queer people, especially transgender people and queer people of color, dying every day from violence against them. There are still protesters at gay funerals. There are still those who believe AIDS is God’s punishment against us. There are those who hate queer people with every fiber of their being.
It is against this backdrop that I celebrate marriage equality coming to Wisconsin. When I came out 35 years ago my struggle was whether I would still have a family and friends left after doing so. It was whether I could survive without getting beaten or killed because I would not stay in the closet. Perhaps the last thought in my mind was that I might find someone to marry. That wasn’t even a thought that entered my mind. It was out of the realm of possibility, beyond consideration.
I did know then that like everyone else I knew, gay or straight, I wanted to find love. I wanted to find a person with whom I could share my life and live out my days. With or without marriage I could dream of that and with or without marriage I found that in my partner, Brian. I have shared that life with him for more than 23 years now and we have not yet begun to grow old together. We are officially in a domestic partnership, but that is not the same as marriage. It confers a second class citizenship upon us. It offers us some of the protections of marriage, but not all of them.
More important than the protections and the benefits is the acceptance. I want to be able to declare my love and commitment to Brian in a public ceremony as my straight friends have done. I want a public celebration of that love and partnership. I want to be accepted as a full citizen in every sense of the word. And I want that bond of matrimony, that lifelong commitment.
If you are straight try to imagine that your love for your partner could not be honored in a wedding ceremony if that’s what you wanted. Imagine that bakers refused to bake a cake for you or caterers refused to provide the food. Imagine that members of your family or circle of friends refused to come because of who you had decided to marry. Imagine that you could not get a license and the government would not allow you to wed. Imagine going to legislative hearings to talk about how your love is as real as anyone else’s and then to have that testimony ignored and the push for marriage equality quashed repeatedly over the years. Imagine a majority of the people in the place where you grew up, where your mother and father and ancestors grew up, voting to say that your love does not have enough meaning to qualify as equal to theirs. This has been the story of my love for more than two decades. We have waited patiently, sometimes tearfully, not expecting that it would ever really happen in our lifetimes but hoping nonetheless. When it became legal in other states we chose not to move or try to get married elsewhere because we both wanted the legal recognition of our relationship from our home state.
Now it is reality. Now the engagement has an end in sight. Now we can, like generations of people before us, like millions of people around us, celebrate our love by gathering family and friends and having a somewhat new-fashioned old-fashioned wedding. We are planning on waiting until our 25th anniversary, which is in less than two years, and then we expect at least another 25 years as an old gay married couple loving each other into the sunset of our lives.