By Cat Saunders
Author’s Note: This article was originally published in July 2000.
On June 26, 2015, under the Obama administration, the U.S. Supreme Court made gay marriage legal in all 50 states. This national law overrides any remaining state-level prohibition against it. Hallelujah!
Despite this great leap in progress around gay rights in the U.S., I’ve decided to leave this article online, although I’ve updated it to reflect the landmark 2015 ruling.
Why am I leaving the article in circulation? Because there is still much work to do to overcome gender-based bigotry in America and worldwide. Equal consideration under the law belongs to everyone, no matter what their sexual orientation.
This is not an essay full of facts and figures. You’ll have to go elsewhere if you want to learn about the history of marriage and its long legacy of discrimination against one kind of people or another. What you’re going to get here is a piece of my mind, straight from my heart.
Actually, I doubt if anything coming from my heart can be very straight, because I’m bisexual. However, I promise you that this essay will be gut-level honest, no holds barred. I may be criticized for saying the things I’m about to say, but that’s too bad. I am sickened by the horrible abuse of privilege that goes on in relation to marriage. So I must speak up.
The truth is, I think it’s sick that here in the United States, gay marriage did not become a federally protected right until 2015. This was because of bigotry, pure and simple. Denying gays and lesbians the right to marry was as cruel and absurd as it was to deny two straight people of different races the right to marry.
In my home state (Washington), legislators in 1998 passed a redundant and homophobic “Defense of Marriage Act.” This act outlawed marriage between two people of the same sex. In 1998, this was already illegal in Washington. Personally, I think legislators should have called this law the “Denial of Marriage Act.” After all, it denied roughly ten percent of the population the right to enjoy the legal privileges accorded to the other ninety percent.
Doesn’t the Constitution of the United States guarantee everyone the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness? This guarantee alone should be enough to legitimatize gay marriage. It’s mighty hard to feel full liberty to pursue happiness if you don’t have the right to marry the person you love.
Marriage as an Institution
I’ve always argued for the expansion of marriage rights to all people. So it may surprise you to know I’m not a big fan of conventional, government-sanctioned marriage.
I have been married and divorced twice. Now since 1987, I’ve been in a long-term partnership with a man. Frankly, I share Mae West’s infamous take on marriage. She said, “Marriage is a great institution, but I’m not ready for an institution yet.”
Aside from my personal bias, I must also confess something professionally. In my longtime practice as a counselor, I’ve rarely seen marriage improve a relationship. I’ve seen a number of healthy relationships stay strong and vibrant after marriage. I’ve just rarely seen marriage actually improve a relationship.
Unfortunately, I have seen numerous couples hit the skids or “go on automatic” at some point after marriage. Of course, there’s no telling what would have happened if these people hadn’t gotten married. There are no control groups in human life! However, many couples underestimate the extraordinary power underlying the institution of marriage. Marriage comes with a plethora of socioeconomic and religious baggage, not to mention its intergenerational family legacies.
Marriage brings with it a whole gamut of personal and collective hopes, dreams, fears, and expectations. Anyone who doesn’t think so has probably never been married. Or they may simply be oblivious to the complex inner workings of this ancient institution.
Meat to the Lions and a Circus of Laws
One of my early mentors (a woman) said that marriage is “like meat to the lions.” That’s a pretty intense statement, so I’ve thought about it a lot over the years. Basically, the government sanctions marriage in order to control people’s lives in various ways for the alleged benefit of society. For example, the government may want to oversee the welfare of “legitimate” children. Or it may seek to regulate property ownership and the dispersal of assets after death.
The government doesn’t only sanction marriage for the benefit of society, but also for the benefit of specific individuals. In most American states, for instance, only legally married couples can pass along Social Security benefits to their partners. There are also more than a thousand other benefits assigned automatically through the act of marriage. Thus, unmarried couples—whether gay or straight—are penalized in numerous ways by current marriage laws in the United States.
If government-sanctioned marriage did not exist, couples would need to be more proactive in regard to financial rights and responsibilities. This would mean that domestic partners would need to draw up legal documents to protect their financial and medical interests. They would also need legal documents to specify personal wishes related to other important matters of life and death.
Frankly, it might actually be simpler to make this documentation a matter of personal responsibility for individual couples. As it stands now, legal documents related to coupling are left to the mercy of our country’s current circus of laws surrounding marriage. This includes laws related to community property, child custody, and estate dispersal. Frankly, I wish the government would stay out of the marriage bed.
When I was a child, I assumed I’d get married because that’s what most people did in my generation. Once I abandoned that kind of automatic thinking, I had a change of heart. I eventually came to believe that this country’s laws about the separation of Church and State should also apply to marriage. To me, marriage is an affair of the heart. I don’t think the State has any business regulating affairs of the heart.
Given the complexity of human life in current time, it’s understandable that unions between people require some level of government regulation. Even so, I’d rather do away with State-sanctioned marriage altogether and make all unions be civil unions. This would leave the issue of marriage to religion, thus keeping the separation of Church and State intact.
Various churches could then be inclusive or exclusive regarding marriage, according to their level of enlightenment (or lack thereof). Anyone could choose to marry or not as desired. In addition, every civil union would be accorded all the rights and responsibilities now awarded only to State-sanctioned marriages. This would be true regardless of whether or not the couple chooses to marry.
Now you know that it’s not so much marriage itself I’m defending, but the right to enjoy all the privileges of marriage. This right can be exercised through civil union and/or marriage, but my point remains. Everyone deserves the right to enjoy all the privileges of legal coupledom, no matter what their sexual orientation.
The Privilege of Choice
Although my overall network of friends includes a variety of sexual orientations, my close inner circle is noticeably underpopulated by heterosexuals. I didn’t plan it this way. In fact, I never paid much attention to this until I started thinking about writing this article many years ago.
Here’s the breakdown of my current circle of close friends at the time of this writing. I’m bisexual and my longtime companion is a straight man. My best woman friend is also bisexual, and she’s in a long-term relationship with a woman. My closest male friend is gay, and he’s in a long-term relationship with a man. Of three other close women friends, one is lesbian and partnered for 19 years, and the other two are straight and currently unattached. That makes three heterosexuals out of a total of ten people.
Thus, my inner circle of friends and their partners includes three straight people. These heterosexuals have always had the right to marry the lover of their choice. Until 2015, those of us who are bisexual have had this right only if we choose partners of the opposite sex. The other five who are gay or lesbian were also only granted the right to marry as of 2015. As you can see, we’ve all experienced various level of inequity in the marriage department.
I realize that the percentage of non-heterosexual people in my inner circle of friends doesn’t fit the statistical norm. However, I can safely say that my friends and I all consider ourselves “normal.” What’s more, we most definitely believe that each of us deserves the same rights as everyone else. Ironically, it is my gay and lesbian friends who would most like to be married. My partner and I want no part of it, and my other close women friends who are straight are happily single right now.
This brings me to the crux of the matter. It’s a much different issue to choose not to be married if you actually have the choice! That’s the nature of privilege. It allows you to say yes or no to something because the choice is a given.
My gay and lesbian friends worldwide do not have the privilege to marry whomever they choose. Frankly, I think that’s deplorable. I don’t know how anyone can be so arrogant as to deny other adults the right to couple with whomever they choose. And by that I mean coupling in every sense of the word, including legally.
A Call for Well-Lit Minds
I wish that every homophobe, anti-gay legislator, and religious fundamentalist could somehow experience, firsthand, what many homosexuals experience, to some degree, every day of every year. These experiences include intolerance, ridicule, hatred, and socio-economic discrimination based on sexual orientation.
If the roles were reversed, homophobic people could get a taste of their own oppression. They would find out how it feels to get dirty looks because you’re “one of them.” How it feels to be disowned by your parents because your lover doesn’t fit their profile. They would find out how it feels to be denied child custody rights because of your sexual identity. How it feels to be denied access to a dying partner in the hospital because you’re not legally married. Or how it feels to be fired from your job—despite workplace protection laws—because coworkers are “uncomfortable” around you.
The brutality of discrimination is pervasive. Sometimes the situation seems hopeless to me, since I know that bigots rarely turn into icons of acceptance overnight. In fact, many bigots will never soften their stance at all.
However, something inside me refuses to give up on even the most diehard homophobes. Why? Because I believe that somewhere in their hearts lies a nugget of gold. Somewhere in their hearts, a cache of compassion lies trapped inside an icy envelope of fear. You just never know what stroke of luck, what kiss of kindness, what twist of fate might melt that icy envelope.
Someday—and I hope it’s soon—homophobes will be a tiny, containable minority with no legal power. Perhaps homophobia makes sense to the minds in which it arises. But unfortunately, those minds may not be very well lit.
The point is, well-lit minds are inclusive, not exclusive. It is the nature of light to shine equally on all things and all people. Therefore, dimly lit minds should not be sitting in legislatures. Dimly lit minds should not be deciding the fate of millions of people who simply want the freedom to love, cherish, and legally commit to whomever they choose.
When my gay and lesbian friends worldwide can marry, and when people like me can walk either side of our bisexuality with impunity, then I will stop writing about this cruel denial of rights. Until then, I’ll add my voice to the fray.
This article was originally published by The New Times in July 2000 and updated in June 2017.
For more information about gay marriage, please visit www.freedomtomarry.org (Freedom to Marry) or www.hrc.org (Human Rights Campaign).
To learn more about financial/legal protection and unmarried parenting, please visit www.unmarried.org (Alternatives to Marriage Project).
To read a brief history of same-sex marriage worldwide, please visit www.legalmatch.com/same-sex-marriage-history.html.
For a list of GLBT-friendly resources of all kinds, please visit https://www.letshangout.com/content-the-glbt-resource-page.php.
For additional resources in support of the LGBT community, please visit http://www.jimadler.com/law-resources-for-the-lgbt-community.
Cat Saunders, Ph.D., is a counselor in private practice in Seattle, Washington. She is also the author of Dr. Cat’s Helping Handbook: A Compassionate Guide for Being Human (available through Amazon). Contact Cat by emailing her or by calling 206-329-0125 (24-hour voicemail).