Why This SCOTUS Decision On Same-Sex Marriage Feels So Small

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“For many of us, marriage is a straight-people-thing.”

My professor’s office has five very large bookshelves, two on the left, three on the right. Edward Said, Simone de Beauvior, Augusto Boal, even some books that he has written himself, lean against each other on the shelves, ordered by topic. Each of his students’ thesis papers, from the mid-90’s until now, sit in their own stack like trophies in a case. Later that week, after this conversation, I find a note from his adoptive son ripped up in an envelope between two volumes of the Encyclopedia Britannica. Dear Papa, I’m sorry for lying to you…

“Where is the funding for anti retroviral drugs? When will we stop being the victims of hate crimes in our own homes? When will we be represented in mainstream media outlets on our own terms?”

When I woke up this morning to the news that the Supreme Court of these United States had ruled to protect the right of same-sex couples to marry under the 14th amendment, I called Mim. My best friend since high school, Mim identifies as a lesbian. Together, we have been philosophizing on love, relationships, partners, and happiness since we were fifteen years old, both getting over long-term relationships at a Summer arts program at SFAI. After chortling on the phone for five minutes (CAN YOU BELIEVE IT? WHEN/HOW DID THIS HAPPEN?!), we quieted down for a moment.

“What does this mean for you, babygirl?”

The question came from my nature as an outsider in this issue. As a cis-gender, straight, white male I was born with the blessing of my society to pursue the woman of my dreams, court her, and marry her. Many experiences, wants, needs, and realities separate the straight male experience from the lesbian female experience, but Mim and I have always bonded on our love for women and the squishy feeling they give us when they happen to be attractive physically and emotionally. I wanted to know if this moment, a moment in which the higher court of our home country had finally come to see her impulses towards women as valid as mine, held some sort of weight for her.

“Nothing, I guess. I don’t think it means anything.”

I heard her demeanor change over the phone, the giddiness giving way to a hint of melancholy, and I remembered my professor in his office on the eve of the repeal of Prop 8 in California.

“Let them keep marriage,” he said, “we have more important things to worry about. We’ve been fine without it. What good will it do us now?”

***

After the colonial forces defeated the remaining Incan infantry, effectively taking the greater Píru by force, Pizarro and company began to forcibly marry the indigenous female royalty to exploit a loophole in Spanish law granting nobility to whomever entered in a lawful union with a foreign dignitary.

Marriage has always been about assimilation as much as it has been about consolidation. Love as a bastion of the marital institution is a modern developments used to sell diamonds, automobiles, and refrigerators coming off the assembly lines in Detroit, then China, etc. Traditionally the wife figure erased her family name in taking on her husband’s lineage, in some traditions she and her family even had to pay a hefty dowry for the privilege. This transaction is actually the oldest function of marriage, an exchange of human goods for fealty and land. Today, even heterosexual marriage is not equal. Wives will make 65% of what their husbands make while doing 90% of the housework, an unfair division of labor that has survived a full century of scathing critique in the most vocal forums or print and online journalism. Let the same Simone de Beauvoir from my professor’s bookshelf tell you, let Naomi Woolfe reassure you, let Jezebel and Autostraddle guarantee you, the printed word and the headline is not action in and of itself. It is words, and that alone.

***

“I doubt that they broadened the definition of marriage,” Sonya’s voice crackled down the Pacific Coast highway from Santa Cruz to Santa Barbara, “They said that gay people have the right to marry, not that gay marriage is an unalienable right.”

I called Sonya after I called Mim. A recent graduate of UC Hasting’s Law School, Sonya headed up the University’s Reproductive Justice Coalition and the Women’s Law Journal during her two years of study, so I needed her in my ear while I burned through the longform decision and dissenting opinion of Obergefell et al vs. Hodges.

Milla

While she conceded that protecting same-sex marriage under the right to liberty versus the right to privacy was a big precedent for the Supreme Court, Sonya’s initial statement cemented to me the anxiety I had felt welling up in my gut next to the happiness, next to the relief. The more I read the decision, the more I heard the wording of a concession, the shaky voice of a sheepish slight majority finally handing down a justice long overdue.

In admitting that the amount of research and effort committed to obtaining marriage equality is vast, spanning both time in assembling and presenting, you can practically hear Justice Anthony Kennedy and company signing the mea culpas. But as one sharp Tumblr commenter noted today, what good is a marriage certificate in Indianapolis if you’ll get fired the day after you tie the knot? An apology is important, an apology that sets constitutional jurisprudence is a tremor in the fabric of prejudice, of institutional bigotry based on sexual preference. But marriage equality was always a tandem issue for activists pursuing government action for HIV-infected Americans, asylum for queer immigrants, and justice for perpetrators of brutal hate crimes against LGBTQ youth and LGBTQ people of color. Maybe that’s why Mim has trouble finding some concrete meaning in the decision. If the law just realized that gay people deserve to be included in the somewhat oppressive cultural fabric of a heteronormative institution, then the law has a really long way to go.

***

The truth is that some of the healthiest practices of love, unity, and communication in relationships came from gay people, gay theorists, gay friends. The Ethical Slut changed the way that I prioritize effort in my romantic endeavors, emphasizing honesty and realistic expectations over looking for an arbitrary milestone, be that marriage or otherwise, as a proof of success. My conversations with Mim over almost a decade now have helped me to be critical of my personality and my effort in relationships. My professor is living proof that you do not need marriage to have healthy partnership with someone you love for a long period of time, to raise a healthy and simultaneously complicated pair of children to adolescence and beyond. Marriage is one story in the fight for equality, a fight for keeping custody of children, retaining health insurance, and legal rights when a partner has died almost as much as it has been for same love. While it is a marked step, let’s not allow our straight privilege to blow Obergefell et al vs. Hodges up into a catharsis. After all, Brown v. Board, Roe v. Wade, and the Civil Rights victories bred their lasting oppositions: the Jim Crow laws and Abortion requirements legalized on a state-by-state basis.

Let us take this victory now, remember the work that extends to and beyond this decision, and be sure to continue building every day as we have been as those affected, as allies. It may not mean much today, but marriage was always a tandem issue, and if we try hard enough, today may be a harbinger.

That, I would like to think, will mean something.

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