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Marriage Equality in Prose and Poetry (or, “The Figuring-it-out at Kitchen Tables”)

April 4th, 2010 1 comment

Let’s start with this startling video. (Really, watch it. It’s only two minutes long and will amaze you if you’ve not seen it.)

So here we have the Iowa Senate’s Democratic Leader, Mike Gronstal, saying that:

(1) The battle over marriage equality will be over soon, once his daughter’s generation takes over. Nate Silver over at fivethirtyeight.com is just the latest to make this point in his usually quantifiably impressive style. Of course, her comment that “no one cares” is just the sort of statement that equality opponents love to jump all over, to wit: “That’s the problem; we need to care about the institution of marriage.” But that’s not what I think she meant. Rather, it’s that no one thinks that allowing same-sex couples to marry will do anything to harm marriage. This perception comes, in large part, from people under a certain age having grown up with and around openly gay people. That’s new, and it’s transformative.

(2) His marriage to his wife is stronger because same-sex couples can now marry. This is a point I’ve been trying to make for some time. Marriage opponents have been asserting that allowing same-sex couples to marry will destroy the institution (over time), as it will lose its historically rooted male/female definition. But it seems likely that many fair-minded, opposite-sex couples will come to the conclusion Sen. Gronstal did: The state’s embracing of relationships between two committed adults strengthens marriage. Keeping committed same-sex couples out of marriage might in fact weaken marriage for the next generation, by showcasing the state’s willingness to discriminate on a basis that, to many of them, is unsound.

The Senator’s reference to the talk he had with his daughter brought to mind Elizabeth Alexander’s Inaugural Poem, “Praise Song for the Day,” where she offered:

“Praise song for struggle, praise song for the day.

“Praise song for every hand-lettered sign, the figuring-it-out at kitchen tables.”

It’s this kind of conversation, going on at kitchen tables all over the country, that is quickly changing the terrain in this struggle. It’s not only 30-somethings and younger that support equality; because of these conversations, people like Mike Gronstal are “figuring it out” too.

Speaking of poetry… I came across a short poem that seems especially weighty right now. In the latest New Yorker, Spencer Reese’s “The Long-Term Marriage” describes an older couple (“[t]he dash between their dates is nearly done”) engaging in the most intimate kind of caring for each other (wife rubs cream on husband’s head to chase away “squamous-cell carcinomas”); but the creams are “FedExed from their adopted son’s boyfriend’s home, a relationship that remains, to them, unknown.”

The poem draws a striking contrast between the two relationships. The older couple at the center of this evanescent universe are portrayed in loving detail, while the son (likely “adopted” to suggest, somehow, the importance of the biological link for understanding between generations)  and his “boyfriend” are left undescribed at the other end of the FedEx transmission. Despite the physical and emotional distance, the son expresses his love by sending what his parents most need, and by the quickest means possible.

Equal dignity is both furnished and taught by law. I wonder if “The Long-Term Marriage” is a poem that could be written fifty years from now, after this struggle has been won. Will there still be straight couples this unaware of their children’s most important relationships? I doubt it.

Let me close with the final lines from “Praise Song”:

“What if the mightiest word is love?

“Love beyond marital, filial, national,
love that casts a widening pool of light,
love with no need to pre-empt grievance.

“In today’s sharp sparkle, this winter air,
any thing can be made, any sentence begun.
On the brink, on the brim, on the cusp,

praise song for walking forward in that light.”

This post was originally published on April 16, 2009.

The Name Game

February 26th, 2009 No comments

I recently spoke to my colleagues about some of the research, writing and thinking I’ve been doing on the issue of marriage equality. Inevitably, some portion of the discussion turns to the civil union and whether it’s an adequate substitute for marriage.* In incisive academic fashion, someone suggested that the state has limited power here, because same-sex couples can seize their own naming rights, calling their unions “marriage” — whatever the state says.

(*No.)

Of course we can, and it’s only folks like the congenitally nasty and ethically challenged Maggie Gallagher who’d respond by saying this:  “If the 15 words “Marriage in the United States is exclusively a union of one man and one woman” are placed in our Constitution, we can point with confidence to those who claim civil unions are marriages and say with confidence, “Not in the United States.”

Well, thanks for that. But she’s not entirely wrong, because we can call the unions what we want — and this is indeed powerful — but it won’t bring the smothering cavalcade of benefits (and responsibilities) that goes only to the officially “married.” Moreover, the state’s power to define relationships has a social, as well as a legal, component. So at the very least the government’s decision to withhold approval of same-sex marriages would weaken and retard our ability to make our naming decisions stick. David Cruz made this  point about the power of the word “marriage” effectively several years ago in his article, “‘Just Don’t Call It a Marriage:’ The First Amendment and Marriage as an Expressive Resource.” (He blogs about marriage  equality, with recent focus on Prop 8.)

In response to this point about the power of naming, I offered that I had recently taken to using the words “husband” or “spouse” instead of “partner” to describe my own relationship. Partly this is to use terms that our daughters hear all the time, and partly it’s because I want to own the equality that I argue for.

So imagine, if you will, my surprise when a female colleague and friend said that she had moved in the opposite direction, using the term “partner” to describe her husband. It then occurred to me that I knew several opposite-sex married couples who used the term partner. Why? To  her, the terms “husband” and “wife” came freighted with all sorts of unpleasant historical associations and meanings; the term “animal husbandry” even came up but wasn’t pursued. The inquiry might be worth making, especially as my dictionary offers these definitions of “husbandry”: “the cultivation or production of plants and animals” and “the scientific control and management of a branch of farming and esp. of domestic animals.” I guess my friend doesn’t want to “control or manage” her spouse in these ways, although, to hear certain conservative commentators talk about the issue, marriage is mostly about this need to control men.

So here’s where we are today: Same-sex couples (OK, some of us) are owning “marriage”  and “husband” and “wife.” In so doing, we are simultaneously mainstreaming ourselves and redefining “husband” and “wife” to the extent that these have been considered terms of rigid relation. To call ourselves “partners” starts to sound like complicity in our second-class citizenship.

Meanwhile, some progressive opposite-sex couples choose “partner” because of its strong association to the idea of equality.

Where will this name game end? It won’t, of course; only extinct cultures produce “dead languages.” But however mutable, names have power.

Bracket [This]!

February 25th, 2009 No comments

I was intrigued by the proposal for “federal civil unions” by the unlikely Wonder Twins of Jonathan Rauch and David Blankenhorn (see my post: “The Worst Op-Ed, Ever“). After all, Rauch is a committed advocate for marriage equality, while Blankenhorn is an equally committed (although unusually thoughtful) opponent. So I did some further digging. It turns out that these two have had a level of mutual respect for each other that is rare, but that also borders on parody. (“Thanks for those kind words, Jonathan.” “Thanks for thanking me, David….” and so on.)

Here you can find their only seemingly endless debate on marriage equality. Given the length of the debate and the range of arguments addressed, I want to focus on a curious omission by Blankenhorn, and one that Rauch — for whatever reason — lets stand, unchallenged. (Ah, the cost of civility!) At one point, Blankenhorn trots out the argument that to allow same-sex couples to marry would be to teach children and the broader society that kids don’t have a right to know who their biological parents are. In this context he says that he’s “bracketing” the issue of adoption.

Well, that’s convenient. He “brackets” it — sets it aside, in other words — because policy is generally that kids in adoptive families do not have the right to know who their biological parents are. And this is true whether these kids are being brought up by opposite-sex or same-sex couples. Moreover, what about kids who are conceived via in vitro fertilization where one biological parent is an anonymous sperm donor? These kids don’t have the “right” to know who their biological parents are, either. I guess these cases are also in the “bracket.” I kept expecting Blankenhorn to unbracket this issue, but it never happened.

What’s more, Blankenhorn also stated in this debate that he favors adoption by same-sex couples!

Let’s recap The World According to Blankenhorn (not a great movie title):

(1) Kids have a right to know who their biological parents are (and presumably  to be raised by them).

(2) This doesn’t apply to adopted kids, who are conveniently “bracketed” out of the discussion. (BTW, there’s a point here about language reinforcing the way that society oftens treats children in need of adoption, but let’s not digress.)

(3) Same-sex couples should be able to adopt kids, just as opposite-sex couples do.

(4) Therefore, at least in some cases kids don’t have a right to know who their biological parents are, and this applies to the adopted children of same-sex couples — who can be good parents.

What’s left of his argument? How does denying marriage rights to adoptive, same-sex parents do violence to the principle that kids have a right to know who their parents are, when he seems to be conceding that they have no such rights in the first place. Help me understand this, please.

Another, related omission also startled me, even though it’s common: Blankenhorn made no mention of the harm that denying marriage equality has on gay families. Given his support of gay adoption, this seems at least to require some explanation.

I do want to close on a more positive note. During the debate, Rauch and Blankenhorn discussed a meeting of conservatives where Blankenhorn, while setting out his argument against marriage equality, specifically affirmed the “equal dignity of homosexual love.” The response of the crowd was apparently something like this:

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lgIB9XRaj0E

Making that kind of statement to an audience you know is going to react hostilely is an act of courage. I guess the mutual admiration society of Rauch and Blankenhorn isn’t so hard to understand, after all.