By Lisa Regula Meyer
This weekend, I had the honor of not only seeing two very good friends get married, but also getting to be a part of the whole thing in a way I’ve never been, other than with my own wedding. Actually, come to think of it, I probably put more planning into their wedding than in mine, considering my husband and I essentially eloped (with about a dozen people in tow). The process of getting these two beautiful people hitched really got me thinking, for many reasons, not the least of which was the discussion of privilege that was at the center of their wedding plans.
See, Chris and Kris are both very aware of the benefits of marriage, and how they automatically are put into a privileged position by virtue of the fact that they are a straight couple, and thus can have their union recognized by the state and federal governments. For them, their awareness and general amazingness lead them to choose not to accept that privilege by not getting legally married. They had the ceremony, but aren’t filing the paperwork. This leaves them in basically the same situation as all of their same-sex couple friends, and they plan to stay in this state of non-legal marriage until their friends can join them in matrimony.
Plenty of people look at marriage as a religious rite, and a marriage ceremony is most definitely a religious rite, but a marriage is so much more than those rites; it’s a relationship, it’s a joining of two people, it’s a commitment to each other, it’s a joining of two families and communities, and possibly the most important facet (from a practical standpoint) marriage is a legal contract.
This contractual agreement between two people can be very formal, including extensive pre-nuptial agreements, and post-nuptial agreements, or it can be extremely informal, simply taking advantages of what is offered by right of being married. This informal agreement at one time (and still in some states) was granted automatically to common-law marriages, or live-in relationships that fit the functional definition of marriage for a certain period of time, but that has changed in many places. Marriage is now mostly considered an opt-in status, because of all the privileges that it conveys, and the difficulties in undoing those privileges if or when a relationship fails.
What exactly am I speaking of when I say “the privileges of marriages”? Well, it’s certainly not the dirty socks in unlikely places, or the fights over who forgot to pick up the kiddo after tutoring last week, as those go along with a relationship with or without the legal recognition. No, the privileges I’m referring to include access to employer-supplied health insurance, the presumption of paternity for children conceived in the marriage, access to federal benefits from tax filing status to Social Security Survivor benefits, automatic inheritance and hospital visitation (as well as decision making power) benefits, and many, many others.
In fact, there are enough benefits to marriage that some young people are getting married to a best friend of the opposite sex simply to have access to things like medical insurance or spousal benefits under military jobs and careers, or to help a foreign friend stay in the country after being fired or dropping out of school (I can’t cite statistics here, but I personally know of former students with whom I still keep in touch who are doing just these things).
All of these little (and not so little) things add up to a mountain of privilege for opposite-sex couples in a married relationship simply by virtue of the fact that they happen to love a person with different genitalia than they have. If this isn’t a system that sets up a second-class-citizen scenario, I don’t know what does, and I know all too many people reading this piece have an even better knowledge of what I’m speaking than I do, because unlike Chris and Kris- I did say “I do” legally.
I won’t lie and say that I don’t worry about my friends, and what they’ll do should something happen to one or the other of them, but I admire their deep courage and commitment to equality over this matter, and I worry about this same issue for all of my same-sex-couple friends as well. Especially considering the administration’s continuing deportation policies and breaking up of families , I really worry for my same-sex, different-nationality coupled friends (and this includes one of my surro-families).
My husband and I were married nearly a dozen years ago, before much of the current battle over marriage equality became prominent, and before Ohio added a “one-man, one-woman” ammendment to the state constitution. While I don’t have the bravery to get a divorce simply to not be the beneficiary of a fantastically flawed system (nor do I feel like spending the money, time, and changes it would take to do that right now), but at this moment in my husband’s and my marriage, it definitely drives home exactly how lucky we are, even if those arguments and out-right fights continue to plague us. So instead, I’ll fight as much as I can to help my fellow married friends of all relationship groups have access to the same benefits that I have, and admittedly take advantage of.