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A Few Thoughts As We Await Decisions in Maine and Washington

November 3rd, 2009 2 comments

(Some thoughts are flying around up here, and I want to get them down and disseminated quickly. So this post will be link-free, at least in its first version.)

Within the hour, we might know whether Maine voters have decided to let the marriage equality bill enacted last summer stand. Update: It appears that this will go into  the wee hours. As of about 11 pm  EST, only 22% of precincts had reported, and the vote was essentially tied. Find updates here.

Later, we’ll have an answer to the slightly less dramatic question of whether the Washington electorate (or the tiny percentage of it that votes in mid-term elections, anyway) will let stand the comprehensive civil union bill that was passed into law a few months ago, or will overturn it and thereby cause the state to revert to the slightly less generous version of civil union status that previously existed. (Still awake?)

I feel like I’ve been going on about these issues forever (I’m hardly the only one), and I sometimes find myself wondering: What’s left to say? When I read that there were literally hundreds of  people scheduled to testify on the D.C. marriage equality bill, I’ll confess that my first reaction was one of numbness.

Haven’t we already made the case? How many more tearful children of same-sex couples will need to speak to the often-subtle, but real, shame that most states continue to enforce by fencing their parents — really, the whole family — out of a basic civil right? How many more visions of apocalypse will be described and displayed by opponents? We can all see, I think, how this is going to end, so  — why isn’t it ending?

Because it’s marriage, and a (shrinking) majority of people remain uncomfortable with a change of this magnitude. Marriage equality is either radicalism dressed up as conservatism, or the other way around, and that ambiguity has both spawned endless scholarly debate and given much of  the electorate cold feet. Better, some say, to stay away from the religiously charged lightning rod of “marriage” and offer the deliberately bland “domestic partnership” or “civil union” as a supposed virtual equivalent. In a limited sense, this is a good strategy: Washington’s domestic partnership law is quite likely to pass; Prop 8 took away marriage but left full domestic partnership status in place; and both Vermont and New Hampshire used the “civil union” to grease the skids towards full marriage equality. Even in Maine, equality opponents seem ready to accept civil unions, just not “marriage.”

I won’t go on about why the whole idea of marriage-in-all-but-name is unacceptable. It suffices to say that once one’s willing to grant all of the benefits but withhold the name, what is left is pure discrimination. If you have trouble seeing this, here’s a quick thought experiment: Imagine that the proposal were to call same-sex unions “marriages” but to rename opposite-sex unions “civil unions.” Acceptable? Q.E.D.

Everyone cares about marriage because that’s the status we understand, and that’s valued. As far as gay people in committed, long-term relationships are concerned, we are married in every way that matters. We just need the law to catch up, and thereby serve its valuable symbolic and educational role in changing hearts, minds, and practices in the many everyday ways that pass unnoticed. Consider this homely example:

A couple of years ago, we  bought an unnecessarily large fridge from Sears, which should change its slogan to: Where Americans Suffer Thoughtless Customer Service Procedures. Every time our adhesive service contract comes up for renewal, whoever answers the phone is asked whether she can speak to “Mr. or Mrs. Culhane.” Every time,  we tell the voice that this is a same-sex household1 and that we’ve told them this before. The reaction: “I’m sorry, but that’s the way we are required to speak.”

Really? In 2009? Yes; and Sears is  hardly the only company from whom we’ve gotten this treatment. There’s nothing sinister about it, and it comes even at the hands of other gays: When I told my retirement portfolio counselor about my “spouse,” she then proceeded to ask a question about “her.” (When I corrected her, she quickly disclosed that she “also was gay.”)

What does any of this have to do with Maine? Plenty. If we don’t win today, soon we will. As more and more people realize that the most important political act they can take part in is to be out, out, out, our numbers, proximity, and lives will work their transformative change on an ever-swelling number of our fellow citizens. Things are moving fast, now. It took Mainers three tries to support their state legislature’s sexual orientation anti-discrimination bill. Expect the much more cutting-edge marriage bill to pass either today, or next time.

We are pushing on the wheel of history, and everyone can hear the creak.

  1. Well, we only used the italics this last time.