Friday, February 27, 2009

(This chapter from The Brides of March: Memoir of a Same-Sex Marriage is oh-so pertinent four and a half years after the event described occurred. I keep hoping it will become moot.)

“Queers Should Be Able to Screw-up This Institution, Too”

Just after school let out for the summer, I took a much needed writing weekend/sanity break at the Doubletree Inn a mile from where we live. It was an unimaginable luxury, yet essential to surviving the summer with three kids twenty-four/seven, an ever-increasing driving phobia that had me scared on the freeway, even in the passenger seat, and a writing career I didn’t want to put on hiatus for ninety days while I hosted a continuous stream of sleepovers at our house.

During a well-earned break from the my laptop (it was astounding what I could get done when I wasn’t writing during naptime in the minivan or worrying about what to feed everyone for dinner), I went to Barnes & Noble, where I took a child-free cruise down the aisles, lingering deliciously over the novels, stopping at attention grabbing titles, and enjoying the luxury of shopping rather than making a swift purchase before someone blew a gasket.

I found myself in the “Gay & Lesbian” aisle, checking out the new books on same-sex marriage, four volumes hot off the presses. And beneath one of them, Jonathan Rauch’s Gay Marriage, Why it is Good for Gays, Good for Straights, and Good for America, was an “employee recommended” card, giving a 20% discount off that title. When I looked closer, I saw that on the card was written, “Queers should be able to screw up this institution, too,” signed Nick. I stood there, perplexed.

I wasn’t sure whether to complain about the irreverent language (was Nick queer identified? queer friendly? or was queer being used in a derogatory sense?), be glad that consumers were given an economic incentive to read a positive take on same-sex marriage, be annoyed—as a writer—that Nick didn’t bother to actually say anything about Rauch’s book that would inform a potential reader of its merits, or scream with rage that something gay and lesbian Americans have been denied was dismissed so cavalierly.

I did none of the above, bought a pair of reading glasses (my aging eyes feeling the wear and tear of a marathon writing session), and left the store otherwise empty handed, returning to room service and my laptop.

Retelling it later to my friend, Megan, she blew my socks off by saying Nick was absolutely right, “You should be able to screw up that institution, too!” She thought it was a rational argument in an irrational situation.

I guess she and Nick have a point: we should have the same right to mess up, trivialize, or take lightly the institution of marriage, the same as any other couple who jumps into matrimony with both eyes shut.

However much I think of marriage as a serious commitment, an expression of love, a contract to keep going even when the going gets tough, and a legal safety net as a couple, it is also a freedom of choice enjoyed by other adult Americans that has not been ours to make. And since freedom of choice is what made America “America,” instead of a British colony 169 years after my ancestors lost their way to Plymouth Rock, and landed in Connecticut, maybe this argument is what will bring us marriage in the long run.

Gay and lesbian couples are never going to convince everyone that we’re benign, law-abiding, church-going citizens about as scary as Bambi’s mother, nor should we have to. There will never be a 100% consensus that we have the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, if that includes marriage. There will always be folks who believe we’re going to hell in a hand basket and good riddance.

But our laws don’t usually require a consensus.

The battle over same-sex marriage was raging in Oregon: those opposed gathering signatures at churches across the state to bring a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage to the November ballot, making any more same-sex marriages an impossibility, and Basic Rights Oregon was fundraising in case the amendment made the ballot and they needed to make a push to reach voters before November.

More and more, as same-sex couples seek the right to marry, judges will have to ask themselves: is there a compelling reason to discriminate based on sexual orientation? Do the couples deserve equal rights? Are they in some way innately inferior and therefore ineligible to arm themselves with the protection of marriage for their committed relationships, with all the legal advantages that offers?

Conservatives called people like King County Superior Judge William L. Downing, who ruled in King County that DOMA was unconstitutional in Washington State, and Agnes Sowle, the attorney who wrote the recommendation that spurred same-sex marriage in Multnomah County, “activists,” but they were merely interpreting the law without prejudice, a pretty challenging job. And no doubt a thankless one.

More and more, legal experts were recognizing as Nick, the Barnes & Noble employee, did, that we should have equal access to screwing up, taking for granted, or doing exceptionally well at the institution of marriage.

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