Some are more equal than others

Blog topics come to me in strange and interesting ways. Sometimes, I start off with a clear idea of what I want to write about, and it comes together easily. Other times, I might start off thinking I’m going to write about a particular topic, and then my post morphs into something entirely different and unrelated. And every once in a while, something random happens in my life that sparks creative inspiration, and that’s what I decide to go with.

That’s what happened this week. Actually, this time it was TWO unrelated random somethings that happened in my life. Well, not exactly random. And not completely unrelated, either.

So, here’s Random Creative Inspiration #1: The red and pink equals sign.

For those of you who have been living under a rock (or who don’t use social media), this image literally took over Facebook the week the Supreme Court heard arguments regarding the two same-sex marriage cases – one involving California’s Proposition 8, the other focusing on the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). If you’ve ever seen the blue and yellow Human Rights Campaign logo, this image should look familiar. At one point, when I was checking my Facebook account, the few individual profile pictures that were left were submerged in a sea of red equals signs., showing an overwhelming level of support for same-sex marriage.

Now, for Random Creative Inspiration #2: Uncle Bobby’s wedding. (Note: I don’t have an Uncle Bobby.)

This past weekend, I attended a children’s book writing and illustrating conference, where one of the breakout sessions focused on diversity in picture books. One of the examples used in the presentation was Uncle Bobby’s Wedding by Sarah S. Brannen. It tells the story of a guinea pig named Chloe who is devastated when she learns that her uncle Bobby is getting married – her big fear being that she will no longer be her uncle’s favorite person. Eventually, as Chloe spends more time with Uncle Bobby and his boyfriend, Jamie, she comes around, and is delighted to be the flower girl for their wedding. It’s a very sweet story, with a spirit of acceptance and love.

So these two Random Creative Inspirations weave together perfectly, right? It’s time for same-sex marriage to be legalized. We’re just as normal as everybody else. Same-sex relationships are becoming as mainstream as opposite-sex relationships.

Well, that’s not where I’m going with this. As much as I support marriage equality rights, I’m going to talk about the dangers of “normalcy.”

The speaker at the breakout session I attended at this conference was an editor for a major children’s book publisher, and Uncle Bobby’s Wedding comes out of that publishing house. Although she used numerous other books as examples throughout her talk, Uncle Bobby’s Wedding was the only one she read to us cover-to-cover.  And when she finished reading, these were my thoughts:

That was a beautiful story.

The illustrations were delightful.

And, unfortunately, that is NOT how it goes down for a lot of people.

The fight for legalizing same-sex marriage has used, overwhelmingly, the sameness argument. In a 2006 article published in American Psychologist, UC Davis researcher Gregory Herek carefully lays out an argument in support of same-sex marriage rights, grounding each of his assertions in social science research. His thesis essentially boils down to these main points:

  • On most psychological measures, same-sex relationships are no different from opposite-sex couples.
  • Children raised by same-sex couples are no different than children raised by opposite-sex couples; and
  • Marriage bestows significant benefits with regard to health, financial stability, and psychological well-being.

Hence, the sameness argument. Or, to use a more political term, the assimilationist argument.

The dirty little secret about the fight for same-sex marriage rights is that there are factions within the LGBTQ community that are deeply divided over this issue. For example, the week that Facebook was flooded with red and pink equals signs, a number of people in the LGBTQ community responded by posting their own subversive versions of that image. One looked like this:

Granted, some who posted this divide sign are Religious Right-type people who are not in favor of legalizing same-sex marriage. But others who posted this image come from the trans* community, the poly/non-monogamous community, and others who exist on the edges of the mainstream LGBTQ umbrella.

One of the reasons some members of the trans* community chose the “divide” symbol over the “equals” sign is because of the Human Rights Campaign (HRC). Over a long period of time, the HRC, which is one of the largest gay advocacy organizations in the world, has committed some serious transgressions against the trans* community, the most noted being their support for excluding protections based on gender identity and expression from the Employer Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA). Their argument? It’ll pass more easily without the gender stuff. Just wait your turn, and be patient. (NOTE: To date, neither the exclusive or inclusive forms of ENDA have been signed into law.) More recently, at a marriage equality rally in front of the Supreme Court, a trans* activist was asked by an HRC staffer to remove a trans pride flag that had been erected behind the podium. These incidents highlight the ongoing tension between the “LGB”s and the “T”s, with the trans* community never feeling a sense of inclusion.

The divide sign highlights another very serious issue when it comes to same-sex marriage rights, and that is this: Not everybody in the LGBTQ community will benefit if Proposition 8 and DOMA are overturned.

What if you are gender-variant, and you don’t identify as “male” or “female”? So far, same-sex marriage policies haven’t included a “third gender” or alternative to the two-box binary gender system we’re so accustomed to.

What if you are in an ongoing polyamorous relationship? This, of course, is the “slippery slope” example that the Religious Right loves to whip out. Well, if we legalize same-sex marriage, then people will want to have multiple wives, or multiple husbands! Or they’ll want to marry their dog, or their horse, or their toaster! Usually, the response from marriage equality activists is this: Oh no, that will NEVER happen – because we’re just like heterosexual people.

Guess what? It happens. And when people enter into a polyamourous relationship, they are not legally protected. If a triadic (three-person) relationship splits up, there are no policies in place that guide how property and assets should be divided up. If a woman is in a quad (four people) and has a child with one of the men in the group, then decides to leave the quad entirely, how does child custody get sorted out? (Hint: She probably gets full custody, because the quad isn’t legally recognized by the state.)

I think some very serious questions are up for the LGBTQ community, and have been for quite some time. Are we fighting for equality – and if so, what does that mean? If assimilation is the goal that the movement is fighting for, then how does acceptance fall into that? Is it about fitting into the system, or changing the system? Uncle Bobby and Jamie fit into the system quite well. But that’s not true for quite a lot of us.


Filed under children, gender nonconformity, homophobia, human rights, intersectionality, intersex, LGBT families, LGBTQ, mental health, psychological research, relationships, religion, same-sex marriage, transgender, transphobia

9 responses to “Some are more equal than others

  1. Of course, Gayle, there are those in the LGBTQ community who resist same-sex marriage legalization because they don’t want anything to do with heterosexually-based coupling and family models.

    But for those who do, I struggle with the inclusiveness issue. On the one hand, I want everyone to be able to love whoever they want however they want (putting aside the thorny question of age-appropriateness), and for society to respect as well as formalize those relationships when requested. On the other hand, it does seem that most progress is incremental, and I don’t think it makes sense to wait to move ahead until we can have it all.

    • Thanks, Keith, for your comment! The concept of inclusiveness is easy. The actual practice is VERY challenging, I think – especially since groups within the LGBTQ umbrella share some common ground, but also each have distinct issues and experiences. And then throw politics into the mix, and things really get messy.

      What I find striking (and not just within the LGBTQ community) is how frequently an oppressed group that is fighting for rights will throw some subgroup under the bus “because they make us look bad.” Barney Frank did it with ENDA (believing that ENDA would never pass if gender identity was protected). Some transpeople react that way to the intersex community. Frankly, there’s still infighting between women and men in the LGBTQ community. Audre Lorde said it much more elegantly than this, but she essentially said in one of her famous essays that divisions within an oppressed group will do nothing to help the movement.

  2. Gary Hollander

    Gayle, again I will be chewing on this posting for a while, but for right now two aspects of what you write particularly grab my attention. First, the use of assimilation in the larger scope of things for LGBT folks. I do worry that each year we are looking more and more tepid. I am not a “good old days” sort of guy; it just seems that we are less and less, well…queer. The second aspect is one that my partner and I face. Marriage equality, even with tax implications worked out, could still be out of reach for some. He and I might face the painful decision not to marry when we can because 1/2 of my savings for retirement could go to medicare and medicaid to pay back our government for his care. I would gladly do this if we had had 30 years of tax benefits over the course of our relationship.

    In the drive for marriage equality, we doubt that transgender people, people with disabilities, polyamorous folks, and others are part of the “equation.”

  3. Gary, you said: “…He and I might face the painful decision not to marry when we can because 1/2 of my savings for retirement could go to medicare and medicaid to pay back our government for his care…” Would you mind explaining why that might be? (Would this also likely be true if you were to marry a woman with circumstances similar to your partner’s that you had been living with for 30 years prior to marriage?) I’ll understand if this is too personal. I am simply wondering if there are some tax/finance policy implications of same-sex marriage I am not aware of. Thanks.

    • Gary Hollander

      When diagnosed with Type 4 MS 12 years ago, my partner (then of 18 years) was booted from his long-standing individual health insurance policy and denied payment for the $60K in expenses he had already incurred because the an earlier diagnosis of carpal tunnel syndrome was retrospectively viewed as a pre-existing condition of MS. At the time of diagnosis he could no long do his customary work; in 12 months he could not work at all. He filed for bankruptcy and was deemed totally disabled. He immediately got both medicare and medicaid.

      In the past 12 years, I have paid for everything except his medical expenses and — as I said earlier — I would gladly do this again and again. It is part of our partnership.

      When someone gets medicare and comes into some money, for example, through inheritance, our government wisely determines that the person must spend that windfall on her own care. The person may keep a house or car, both exempt from the calculations.

      As it stands now, my assets are not his under the law. There have been at least three attempts by providers to suggest that my assets are also his so that they might be reimbursed at a higher rate than allowed by medicare. One provider of home care insinuated that should we complain about their services we would risk losing coverage all together.

      Should we marry, there is no known precedent for handling our situation with asset recovery. If a heterosexual marriage happened in these circumstances, the assets of the person who has them would be shared with the person who does not. In fact, it is not uncommon for heterosexual people to divorce when one has ALS, for example, in an effort to preserve at least half the assets for the surviving partner. These divorces are often very painful and are rarely discussed because they feel so humiliating to the couple.

      Some would argue fair, others would argue foul. But in either case, our circumstance is not the same. We have in fact shared resources and assets for 30 years without the benefit of the numerous tax advantages that come with marriage.

      We are well aware that we are not THE movement, but one case within it. We are also aware that the marriage train has left the station, but possibly not at a time schedule in which we will be able to get on board. The mostly white middle and owning class gay men who are fueling this train are doing so with a singleness of intent that speaks to the competitive spirit that comes with the privileges of their education and class. I suspect we as a people will win because of them. Those who cleared the land and laid the track, however, are an uncomfortable reminder to them of these class divides. We are viewed as nuisance, inconvenient, victimy, lazy, or ignorant. Our individual needs will be sacrificed by them for the common good and to maintain the pace that they have scheduled.

      Unfortunately, for some this situation is all too common and not so good.

      • Gary, this is a really good (and unfortunate) example. When California’s domestic partner law was passed, the state restricted it to same-sex couples and to people over the age of 62. Legislators (and lobbyists) recognized the fact that many people over 62 might choose not to marry, because it would be too financially damaging (for example, Medicare/MediCal issues, loss of Social Security benefits from former spouses, etc.). As a result, the state created an alternative for older people so their relationships would be recognized and they would be granted various rights and privileges, but their economic situation wouldn’t be impacted negatively. Not every state does it this way, but I think it’s a good example of how the institution of marriage doesn’t necessarily benefit everyone.

  4. Lorri Doig

    I am looking forward to following this particular conversation. It brings up some very interesting points and I hope it opens a lively conversation.

  5. David

    Looking at this controversy from the outside, so to speak, I think too much emphasis is placed on gender, rather than “personness”. If marriage was defined simply as the wedding of two PEOPLE, it would eliminate the confusion of fixed, mixed or changing gender labels, not to mention completely destroying the “slippery slope” arguments involving dogs, horses and toasters.

    Multiple partner relationships are something I can’t quite understand; it’s often hard enough for just two people to come to a meeting of minds. It seems to me that a third person added in would often devolve to a two against one argument.

    • I agree – too much emphasis IS placed on gender. When we had a discussion in my class about marriage equality and alternative relationship patterns, one of my students very astutely pointed out that, from an economic standpoint, marriage seems to most benefit opposite-sex couples with children (assuming those couples stay together, of course). It doesn’t always benefit older couples, and it might not bestow the same economic benefits to childless couples. This probably has to do with the fact that the history of marriage was based on economic agreements.

      As for multiple partner relationships, that’s not something I have personal experience with, so I can’t speak to them from that standpoint. However, over the last several years I’ve been learning more about why people choose nonmonogamy, open relationships, or polyamory, and for these relationships to work there has to be a lot of trust, communication, and honesty. If our society better supported alternative relationship forms, then that would certainly make things easier. On a side note, I’m struck by how many opposite-sex marriages end up being nonmonogamous, with lots of dishonesty thrown into the mix. It seems like the dishonesty and breaking the original relationship agreement is what’s most harmful to the relationship, not necessarily the affair itself.

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