Arts & Culture: Diversity Dialogue

Cultural Diversity and Inclusion in the Arts in New York State’s Southern Tier

What’s In A Word?

What’s In A Word?

by Louise A. Blum

So the other day, our daughter’s school had our New York state senator, George Winner, in for a talk. Naturally, the topic soon turned to gay marriage. Senator Winner’s opposition to the bill was, of course, not surprising. Nor was our daughter’s passionate argument in support of legalizing gay marriage. What was surprising was the reaction of one of the adults later, who suggested to our daughter that we let go of our fight for gay marriage, and accept civil unions instead. “It’s just a word,” she said. “Let them have the word.”

My 13 year old daughter’s response was to be expected: rage. “Let who have the word?” she asked. “You? Let you have the word?”

She is still angry. And so am I. As a writer, I have to say that there is no such thing as “just a word.” And as a lesbian, I also have to say that few “words” do more to marginalize me than “marriage.”

You want to know some of the rights that this “word” would give me that my family and I do not have now? Let’s start with some federal benefits (I won’t list all 1,138 of them). Filing joint tax returns. Inheriting a share of your spouse’s estate. Veterans’ and military benefits. Obtaining immigration and residency benefits for your spouse and family. Receiving family rates for health, homeowners’, and auto insurance. Filing for stepparent or joint adoption, applying for joint foster care rights. The right to make medical decisions on behalf of your partner. Insurance benefits through your spouse’s employer. Family leave to care for your spouse during an illness. The right to visit your partner in hospital or prison. Assumption of your spouse’s pension. Bereavement leave. Social security survivor benefits. Medicare. Disability benefits. The right to make burial arrangements. None of these are benefits of a civil union.

And if you think “marriage” is just a word, then try looking at another word: “Divorce.” Marriage gives you the right to equitable division of property, spousal or child support, child custody, and visitation.

You want the full list of legal benefits, check out the memo the U.S. General Accounting Office prepared in January of 1997 to address the Defense of Marriage Act, which Clinton signed into law in September of 1996. This is the act that defined marriage as a “legal union between one man and one woman as husband and wife,” and further defined spouse as “only a person of the opposite sex who is a husband or a wife.” You can find it at I’ll warn you, it’s a 75 page document. Take a few months to read it over and then tell me: you still think it’s just a word?

Today we are on the eve of approving gay marriage here in New York State. It will likely pass the Assembly today, and then go on to the Senate. If it passes, New York will join a host of other states – Maine, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Iowa, and Vermont that have made same sex marriage legal. It will not, of course, give us any federal protections at all, and any state protections will evaporate once we cross the border. And, of course, Proposition 8 in California showed us that the Religious Right (with a little help from the Mormons) can still manage to take it away, but the passage of this bill is still crucial. It’s part of a movement. And like other movements of social change in our history, it will not end until we have justice. The momentum is there – state after state, collapsing like dominoes. Obama’s in office, the Democrats are in power. Let’s face it, the Republicans are right. The legalization of gay marriage is a clear indicator of the direction this country is taking. We’re a natural disaster, like the wildfires on the west coast, Katrina in New Orleans, and, like global warming, a man-made natural disaster. Because this movement is the direct result of generations of discrimination.

Scared? You should be. Words have power.

We’re talking about opening this country up, about transforming an institution. We’re talking about rights, about equality. About how democracy works. What’s in a word? You tell me. And if you don’t care, go get yourself a civil union. I’m getting married.

6 comments on “What’s In A Word?

  1. Warren Jeffrey Motter
    May 12, 2009

    The very same arguments that some people are making in favor of denying Equal Rights for Gays are exactly the same arguments I can remember people (some these SAME people) making when attempting to deny Equal Rights to African Americans back in the 1960s. All law-abiding citizens deserve to be given the very same opportunities, regardless of how they look or think or live. That’s it. That’s all.

    Please suggest that your daughter does not simply get angry about this issue. Instead, you could reveal that she could make the decision to get busy in being an activist for Equal Rights for Gays (including the right to be married).

    Thanks for the information about Georgie’s views (which don’t surprise me, at all). My Hopes & Prayers are with everyone’s efforts to win this fight. We Shall Overcome!!

    Living my dream,

  2. lblum
    May 12, 2009

    Thanks for your comment, Warrren – I think your analogy is right on.


  3. Sandra
    May 13, 2009


    My heart goes out to you and your daughter. You have every right to seek marriage. Your daughter has a right to parents that are “married”. Not just a civil union, but married…. with all the rights that entails.

    I think churches should sanction whatever kind of marriage they wish, however, we are not talking about religious ceremonies or sanctions with this bill. We are talking about legally sanctioned marriages. Since the state and federal government stepped in to make “marriage” legal, it should be legal for anyone who wishes to marry, not just some.

    I wish you the best in all things.


  4. Tasha
    May 13, 2009

    This is a hard fight that I believe we will eventually win. We are gaining ground across the nation. When the fight gets tough we must not give in. We must continue striving for equality! I am a lesbian and it kills me to hear my mom say that gays and lesbians must not be given the right to marry. She will be proven wrong!

    Staying stong,

  5. Gigi
    May 19, 2009

    I am looking forward to the day when all law abiding citizens of the United States have the same civil and equal rights.Louise, I appreciate the work towards freedom that you and your family are doing by giving voice to these crucial issues of basic human dignity and rights as tax paying citizens.


  6. John
    May 19, 2009


    When I took on Winner in last year’s state senate race I made many of the same points you do. I argued that the gay marriage issue is a legal issue, not one of sanctity or Christianity or any other religion. The simple fact is that the law, the principles on which our nation was founded, is meant to be blind to those seeking its justice, not deaf to their fair-minded demands.

    I tell people to think of the issue in terms of gay divorce to get their heads around the law. How can you deny ANY individual rights under the law? Of course, it happens all the time, but time wins out. The momentum is about fairness under the law, not just gay marriage. It’s about being a nation of people who seek to expand rights, not curtail them. The bravest acts are those that acknowledge difference and not just tolerate it. Embrace it, support it, and pass on to future generations the ideal that the more diverse we are, the better we are.


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