Friday, April 24, 2009

"Dignity in Death"

Adam's post yesterday illustrated the incredible progress that gay marriage has made in our country in only the last several years. In that vein, this moving personal story illlustrates the ordinariness-but incredible importance-of gay marriage. I think it's worth reposting in full:

On March 24, I came home after work and found my husband, Peter Dubuque, dead from an unexpected accident. We have been together almost fifteen years and, because we live in Massachusetts, married for four-and-a-half years. In the aftermath of unexpected death, the surviving spouse faces a jumble of legal responsibilities, emotional reactions, and practical considerations. At 42, I never expected to have to plan a memorial service for the 39-year-old love of my life. I am very fortunate to have a strong national and local network of love and support from friends and family. These past few weeks would have been impossible without them.

In 2004 in Massachusetts (as there had been previously in Vermont when it legislated civil unions), opponents of marriage equality predicted social disaster. The destruction of our social fabric never materialized, of course; each argument was merely an rhetorical arrow in a quiver of hateful obstructions. What was surprising, however, is how marriage equality in Massachusetts has quickly blended into the social landscape. Despite a few feeble and ineffectual protests from the extreme right, it has become a non-issue here.

Just how far marriage equality has become a regular component of society here has been made clear to me while interacting with people I didn't know. What was once unheard of is now commonplace and, frankly, ordinary.

In 1994, I was arrested, handcuffed, and spent the night in jail for dancing with another man in suburban Chicago. (Not kissing, not even touching : just dancing.) But on March 24, 2009, the EMTs, police officers, and detectives on the accident scene were extremely professional, respectful, and courteous.

Shortly after Vermont legalized civil unions, debated raged whether newspapers across the country would accept or refuse to acknowledge such partnerships; now many more highly visible newspapers routinely do. The gracious funeral home operators treated me the same as they would any grieving spouse.

Referring to my husband as my husband doesn't raise eyebrows or result in scorn or sarcasm, whereas when referring to him as my partner ten years ago carried the risk of bad service, indifference, or outright hostility. Customer service representatives at places like banks respect the terminology, whereas once we might have sheepishly referred offhand to our partner. (It was perhaps only six or seven years ago when introducing Peter as my partner, sometimes people would assume I met business partner, even when the context would indicate otherwise.) Twelve years ago something as simple as explaining to utility companies that two people weren't roommates but partners could be construed as being "in your face." Flash forward to the young associate at the Apple store who helped me with Peter's iPhone. Sexual orientation was irrelevant as he expressed sincere condolences for my loss.

Ten, even five years ago, people in my situation in Massachusetts would have faced prejudicial treatment in some of these interactions--in addition to having to deal with protracted legal issues because of being denied the right to be married--simply because marriage equality was an unknown, often feared, and that fear was exploited by our opponents for political gain. Coming of age in a time when AIDS felled so many so quickly, I was aware of far too many horrible, heart-wrenching stories in which the surviving partner was completely shut out and cast aside by next of kin. Now, we are legally next of kin. For all the wonderful things that marriage equality does for the living, it maintains our dignity in death.

So, when the wonderful news from Iowa and Vermont broke, I felt happy. I know Peter would have been overjoyed, and knowing how happy it would have made him made me elated as well. I am so happy that soon in Iowa and Vermont, the idea of two women or two men joined in marriage will be an unremarkable event.

Iowa and Vermont are, however, only the third and fourth state of fifty. We must stop letting those who oppose marriage equality frame the debate. The objections they raise are smokescreens that mask not only their hypocrisy, but also sidetrack our focus. We will win when we focus on equality.

The legal right to have been married to Peter that was so important in our lifetime, has turned out to be equally important in death. I am thankful for the all of the couples, lawyers, advocates, and judges who have put so much energy into this struggle over the past many years, and to those who continue to do so until the goal of federally recognized marriage equality is met.

It's hard for me to imagine the pain of having your loved one die, and then being shut out by family and friends who either disapprove of you or disapprove of your lifestyle. I'm glad to know that this man didn't have to endure such treatment, but the same cannot be said of gay couples in most of the country. This is why marriage equality is so important; as much for what it means after death as in during life.

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