(another chapter of The Brides of March)
The Water Fountain of Legal Marriage
April 14, 2005
I was foolishly optimistic as I drove Anna to school in the minivan that morning. While Jannine remained numbly pessimistic, I was nervous and excited about the Oregon Supreme Court decision on Li V. the State of Oregon, expected to be announced at eight o’clock that morning. During the drive, Anna and I discussed possible outcomes, the best being that Jannine and my marriage, and those of the other three thousand same-sex couples who married in Multnomah County, would be declared legal at last: an island of same-sex marriages surrounded by a constitutional amendment that denied the possibility of more.
The more likely possibility, I told her, was that since we married before Measure 36 passed, and the Oregon constitution specifically demands equality for all Oregonians, if our marriages were declared illegal, equality in the shape of civil unions would surely be mandated.
OK, Anna said, “So, what is a civil union, anyway?”
“Basically,” I told her, “It lets same-sex couples have most of the rights and privileges of marriage, but calls it by another name, making it more palatable.”
“But, that’s like blacks in America before civil rights,” she said, “The water fountains.” I agreed. The best outcome of the court decision would be the legalization of our marriage for keeps, drinking from the same fountain; the next best scenario would be separate, but somewhat equal, water fountains.
She balked at that, separate being clearly unequal to her. I pointed out that before last spring, we didn’t get to drink from the water fountain of marriage, period, no matter how long we’d been together, how many taxes we paid, or children we happily produced. Civil unions would be a step in the right direction. The worst outcome, I said, would be that we, the committed gay and lesbian couples of Oregon, would have no water fountain at all.
Sadly, the Supreme Court’s decision did not come with running water, and I felt like a fool for having believed it might be self-evident that we deserved equality as citizens. First, the decision affirmed that after Measure 36 passed, marriage in Oregon was limited to opposite sex couples, then, that statutory law already existed when the licenses were issued that limited marriage to opposite sex couples (despite the Oregon Constitution requiring equal rights for all, which constitutional experts felt trumped a statute), and went on to say that the three thousand marriage licenses issued by Multnomah County were void at the time they were issued, and (essentially) weren’t worth the paper they were printed on.
The Supreme Court didn’t touch on the possibility of civil unions, saying it wasn’t properly put before them, sidestepping the constitutionality of discrimination.
I had been so hopeful, gleefully following the issue on CNN. The day before the decision, Governor Kulongoski put his weight behind a civil union bill (perhaps he was foolishly optimistic, too), but without the possibility of same-sex marriage, thanks to Measure 36, will there be any impetus for lawmakers to move on civil unions?
It was a sad day at our house. It’s not everyday your marriage is annulled without your desire or consent. Our friends who were married with us that day exchanged phone calls and e-mails of support, but besides a bone-crushing hug from our friend Ann, who attended the weddings, there was barely a murmur from friends or family, and none of our parents phoned.
To compound the pain, the Oregonian headlined the news with not only a small photo of a couple whose marriage had been annulled, but a big one of a gloating straight couple as well, with a sizable section on their relief that the same-sex marriages from the year before were “never legal.”
Lisa said she felt like she should have the word “void” printed across her forehead. I was seriously considering donning a “Second-class Citizen” T-shirt on a regular basis. Anna said she wanted a T-shirt that read, “The state voided my moms’ marriage,” and was creating a line of political buttons up in her bedroom.
Sure, it is not the piece of paper that makes or breaks the marriage. Our marriage will exist without it, has existed without it, but it was safer and more celebrated with it, and it marked our full equality as citizens.
We still feel blessed to have drunk from the fountain of legal marriage, if even for a short time. It was truly magical to have enjoyed the same rite of passage that so many of our friends and family have enjoyed. The water was delicious, appreciated, and savored, as it only can be by someone who has long wished to take a drink.