Cultural Diversity and Inclusion in the Arts in New York State’s Southern Tier
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 http://www.gao.gov/archive/1997/og97016.pdf. 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.