A little over a week ago, we went to visit the Better Half’s family. It was one of our niece’s birthday, and all of the various cousins were assembled. As is his wont, the Critter tore around like a madman outside and generally behaved like the rambunctious 3-year-old he is. That is, up until the moment he dropped to his knees in the grass, started rubbing his eyes and screaming.
Trying to examine an agitated preschooler is a challenge under the best of circumstances, and can be something of a struggle even when I have medical assistants lending a hand in my office. When it’s your own kid writhing around in your lap in his grandparents’ basement, it’s nigh unto impossible. I was reasonably confident that he had gotten something in his eye, and had probably sustained a corneal abrasion. But I couldn’t be sure there wasn’t a foreign body stuck under his eyelid. And so we packed our intermittently shrieking son into the car next to his newborn sister, and drove over an hour into Portland to have him examined at Barbara Bush Children’s Hospital. (I insist on pediatric emergency medicine specialists for my patients, and there’s no way my own kid would get any less.)
So there we were, the four of us in the emergency department. Two dads, a baby and a preschooler, the latter confused and very unhappy. A couple of hours later, having received the (uniformly superlative) care of a couple of doctors and several nurses plus a small dose of intranasal Versed (worked like a dream), our son’s corneal abrasion was confirmed, no foreign body was found, and he was sent home to recover. He was fine by the next day.
Sitting there in the exam room, I was given ample time to muse in between pleasant chats with the medical staff. The man who would be my husband and I were there to get care for our child, legally related to both of us. But both of us having no legal relationship to each other.
Of course, we have done all we can to secure for ourselves as much legal protections as we can. There are health care proxies and wills and advance directives. We are registered under Maine’s domestic partner law, which offers a gossamer-thin tracery of rudimentary legal protections for inheritance and postmortem decision-making. But nothing we can arrange comes close to the robust protections conferred by a marriage license. Had it been my partner and not my son in the hospital, my capacity to make decisions on his behalf would have been much more tenuous. Were I in put in the position of making life-or-death decisions in the event of some catastrophe, I could add legal challenge from his family to my list of things to worry about. (I count it a blessing that I do not believe his family would actually mount such a challenge, but innumerable people in same-sex relationships aren’t so lucky.) For 72 glorious days, Kim Kardashian and whomever it was she married enjoyed more legal protections than the Better Half and I have had in over nine years together.
It is not, of course, for lack of trying. In 2009, after a lengthy process and intense lobbying from both sides, the Maine legislature passed a marriage equality law, and the governor signed it. (I was proud to testify in favor of the law in my professional capacity at a legislative hearing.) However, Maine has a fairly open referendum system, and the new law was immediately subject to a “people’s veto” challenge. Sadly, our side lost and the law was overturned, never having been enacted.
I cannot express how bitter that loss tasted. Both the Better Half and I had campaigned for the law personally and professionally. We had given as much as we could afford, and had boarded campaign workers from out of town. We were overjoyed when the law was passed and signed, and we were crushed when it was overturned. I still do not understand why people would go to such effort to repeal a law that did them no harm, in so doing making their lives no better but merely making others’ worse. It informed our decision to move to a different part of the state when we saw how heavily the area we lived had favored repeal. (It suddenly became much harder to get out of bed at 2 AM and drive through the snow to deliver care to families that were happy to treat my own as second class.)
And so now we are trying again. I have to admit it is somewhat galling to have to come, hat in hand, and present ourselves as worthy of equality under the law to the voters of our state. A glancing view over American history reveals myriad injustices that would have endured had their demise relied upon majority support. But needs must, I suppose, so here we go again.
This coming week, voters in three states will have the opportunity to make equal under the law families like mine. They will have the beautiful opportunity to make unambiguous the validity of same-sex relationships and to render null the prejudices and injustices that have haunted our history. In a fourth state, voters will have the chance to block those prejudices and injustices from infecting their constitution. I am not too proud to ask you, if you live in those states, to vote for my family’s well-being.
What tokens of being “just folks” can I offer that will reassure the skittish? Our neglected vegetables spoil in the crisper, just like everyone else’s. We misplace each other’s car keys, negotiate which holidays are celebrated where, and take turns redirecting our son into bed when he wheedles for another song or story or drink of water. We have weathered storms in our relationship, and will doubtless weather more. But we are committed to never walking away from each other, and we never will. We love each other, our children, and each other’s families.
Opponents rail against “redefining” marriage, and perhaps that is what this would be. Fine. But marriage has been redefined for the better many times before, so why not now? Brides are no longer bartered as markers of dynastic succession or as proxies for the passage of property. We no longer treat them like chattel, nor do we expect them to tolerate spousal abuse or smile through their husbands’ philandering. (I would be naive to believe those attitudes do not endure, but at least they no longer have the strangle-hold on society they once did.) Perhaps same-sex marriage fails biblical scrutiny, but if we’re using the Bible as our template for public policy then where have all the forced marriages and concubines gone? If vows of wifely obedience are rightly going the way of the dodo, why not inequality for relationships like mine?
Do I care who wins the race for the White House? You bet I do. I’m rooting for the guy who isn’t pandering to his base by gesturing toward a constitutional amendment to keep my marriage unrecognized. (That’s not the only reason I’m rooting for him, but it’s a big one.) But the result that will have my guts in knots until it’s announced is the answer to Question 1. If I lived in Maryland it would be Question 6, in Washington Referendum 74, and in Minnesota Amendment One. While the polls are encouraging, they’re too tight to ensure an easy night’s sleep on November 6.
So here I am, virtual hat in virtual hand. I love the man who would be my husband. I love the life we have made together, which we hope will thrive and endure for years to come. I love our children, and would throw myself in front of a train for them. (If the smaller one wanted to start sleeping for longer stretches between feeds it wouldn’t break my heart.) I want the freedom to marry the man with whom I have lived for eight years, so together we can step into the obligations and responsibilities and privileges that marriage entails. We have earned them, and now we are asking to have that fact recognized.