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White Lace and Health Insurance

Ain’t love grand? It makes the strong weak in the knees and the meek daring. It turns blasé survivors of the 1980s like my straight friend Susan into avid fans of Bravo’s Gay Weddings.

Two years ago, love transformed 14 dyed-in-the-valentine-red-wool Canadian romantics into government-suing political activists after they were denied marriage licenses on the basis of their sexual orientation. In July 2002, three judges of the Ontario Superior Court unanimously agreed with the seven gay and lesbian couples that the right to marry was a matter of equal rights; citing Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms, they declared a federal law limiting this right to heterosexuals discriminatory, and gave the nation’s Parliament two years to enact legislation guaranteeing marriage rights to same-sex couples. Then Ontario’s highest court of appeal went one better: It declared the federal law unconstitutional and immediately invalid.

By approaching marriage as a civil rights issue, Canadian lesbians and gays have found a political bottom line that most of the heterosexual public can agree upon: Even people who disapprove of the “lifestyle” rarely want to be counted among those who deny others basic economic and legal rights, and recent polls indicate that the majority of Canadians support marriage as a fundamental equal right that should be extended to lesbians and gays. But the court’s decision might also reflect a change in attitude among Canadians to marriage in general: Although leaders of Canada’s two conservative parties and Premier Ralph Klein of Alberta maintain that marriage is one tradition that shouldn’t be messed with, the country’s 2001 census made clear it is a tradition in decline. Over the past 20 years, heterosexual couples have been rejecting the marriage contract in increasing numbers, choosing to live instead as common-law spouses.

Why, then, do queers want so badly to get married? Is the cultural lure of a Vera Wang gown, engraved invitations, and pastel Jordan almonds in beribboned keepsake mesh bags really so potent? (In part, no doubt: Weddings are a $60 billion–a–year industry in this country; last year, according to the Association for Wedding Professionals International, U.S. couples spent $2 billion just on the cake.) Ten years ago, no one would have guessed that the rally chant on the lips of in-your-face activists everywhere, “We’re here! We’re queer! Get used to it!,” would morph into “We’re here! We’re queer! We’re registered at Williams-Sonoma!” When, and why, did we become so enamored of middle-class America and its rituals?

 

In the 1990s, haunted by a rising death toll due to AIDS, activism meant fighting for the federal government to fund research and find a cure — hell, for Washington to notice that an epidemic was in full swing. As one lesbian activist-artist recently reminded me, “We were fighting for our right to live.”

Now that new and improved drug antiretroviral cocktails are extending the lives of many, it would almost seem that our politics have gone soft in the belly and moved to the suburbs. Lesbians and gay men are settling down, buying houses and joining the stroller set. We have achieved an unprecedented level of middle-class normalcy. We are also discovering, on our way up the ladder of social mobility, how very few rights non-married partners have.

As many gay couples discovered after being denied access to a beloved’s hospital bedside, excluded from health-care decisions or burial arrangements, marriage holds greater charms than just the Vaseline-lensed portraits on the mantel. Gay men and women are demanding a host of economic and legal entitlements — such as the recent reduction in the marriage penalty tax — that straight folk take for granted and often don’t realize are not shared. Linguist J.L. Austin knew what he was doing back in the 1930s when he used “I now pronounce you man and wife” as the paradigmatic example of his theory of how language “performs” and enacts social change. In the United States, those seven words grant 1,049 federal rights, benefits and protections. In California, more than 4,600 state laws depend on marital status for interpretation.

But in going after the most fundamental representation of heterosexuality, the apotheosis of gender indoctrination, lesbians and gays are also advancing cultural recognition and attacking centuries of juridical and psycho-medical discourse that categorizes us as depraved, criminal, perverse, insane. As Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum recently made clear when he aligned same-sex desire with bestiality and incest, this remains an important battle.

In its 61-page ruling, the Ontario court included excerpts from affidavits in which the couples stated the reasons they wanted to marry. Surprisingly, the excerpts stressed fewer concrete rights than the qualitative values of wanting a “defining moment” in which they could publicly avow their love and commitment, and in turn to have their relationships publicly and legally recognized as valid. Tellingly, the justices concluded, “Same-sex couples are capable of forming long, lasting, loving and intimate relationships.” Gee whiz, really? One almost feels the need to shout, “I am not an animal!”

When I got together with my partner, Laurel, eight years ago, we deflected our friends’ hopes for a commitment ceremony by joking that neither of us would agree to wear the tux or the veil. In 1999, when the state of California passed the Domestic Partners Act, I broached the topic of signing up. Laurel, who is Japanese-American, didn’t bother to look up from the newspaper. “My people,” she replied flatly, “don’t have a good track record of registering with state agencies.”

Nevertheless, we paid close attention in 2001 when measure AB 25 was introduced by San Francisco Assemblywoman Carole Migden. Whereas the 1999 act did little more than set up a state registry and provide hospital visitation rights, AB 25, passed into law by Governor Davis on October 15, provided a host of economic and legal rights and benefits to domestic partners — inheritance rights, the right of step-parent adoption, the right to sue for wrongful death. Shortly thereafter, the fateful day came: My best-beloved turned to me and asked, “Will you go to the notary public with me?” The decision was a practical one. Our “ceremony” consisted of mutually holding the envelope as we put our application in the mailbox, then hosting a wedding feast at Ciudad.

This Saturday, my 52-year-old brother will marry the woman he has loved for 20 years and lived with for the past 13. I don’t doubt that I’ll shed a tear or two — it gets me every time I hear his stepdaughter’s children call him “Grandpa.” Still, Laurel and I will need to guard against sudden displays of affection; heaven forbid I should plant a big wet one on her in a moment of, yes, passion and, yes, utter and complete devotion — since I know another brother will be shooting me poison darts and blocking his young daughter’s gaze.

Canada will likely need to brace itself for a northern trek of gays and lesbians, who will enter into contracts of dubious merit back in their native country — it remains unclear whether under current treaties between the U.S. and Canada same-sex marriages authorized north of the border will be recognized in the States. On neither side of the border, however, will a license assure us simpler lives. The validity we seek is still decades away. Whether I am married, registered as a domestic partner or have entered into a civil union, I will still have to explain who I am to the guy who comes out to read our gas meter, to the kind but confused health-insurance customer-service rep at the other end of the telephone line. It might help my mother-in-law, Tamiko, if she could introduce me as Laurel’s wife, since “daughter-in-law” inevitably leads to confusion for those who know she doesn’t have a son. For now, I’m happy with her current resolve of introducing me as her daughter alongside Laurel, and letting the poor saps blink and brood over why I don’t look Asian.


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