Marriage with an Asterisk

My spouse Helen and I are celebrating our 20th anniversary this week. Coincidentally, the U.S. Supreme Court will be hearing two cases on marriage equality at the same time. I’m hoping our happy anniversary vibes will sway them.

Fact is, we’ve only been legally married for about seven years—and ended up having a shotgun wedding. In 2006, we were living in New York, which did not yet allow same-sex couples to marry. Helen got a new job in Massachusetts, which did—but her new company no longer offered benefits for domestic partners, only legally married same-sex couples.

That meant that as soon as Helen quit her old job, I’d either have no health care coverage, or have to pay a lot more to get COBRA coverage—unless we married.

The extra twist was that we had not yet moved to Massachusetts—and Massachusetts still did not allow same-sex couples from out of state to marry there (a silly restriction they’ve since removed). Luckily, Helen’s offer-of-employment letter proved that we showed “intent to reside” in Massachusetts, which was enough to let us wed.

We planned the whole thing in about two weeks (thanks in part to and Gayle Smalley, the lovely Newton JP we found). The ceremony was a small affair, with our son, my parents, and my brother and his wife. (Helen’s family is across the country.) After 13 years, five interstate moves, and one child, however, neither of us felt the need for a fancy shindig.

Has marriage changed us, other than giving us more tax forms to complete? I don’t think our love is any different than it would have been otherwise. That was firm before we were legal. But I started to refer to her as my “spouse” instead of “partner” to others, which feels more equal.

Most importantly, though, our son never has to feel that because of his parents’ relationship, his family is any less valid than those of his peers. We are married and recognized just like the parents of his friends with a mom and a dad.

Except we’re not. Our marriage comes with an asterisk and the footnote: “Certain restrictions may apply. Void where prohibited.” We still file our federal taxes as "single," a slap in the face every year. We still will not receive each others' Social Security benefits as opposite-sex couples can. Our relationship can still be questioned every time we go to a state that doesn't recognize it. (31 states provide no legal recognition for same-sex couples.)

And in the end, it is not just us, but also our son who must deal with the sense of being “less than,” of having fewer rights, of facing more legal and financial hurdles. He is only just beginning to learn that some places don’t recognize our marriage, but he does not yet realize the extent of the inequalities and biases we face.

Did I need to get married to show the world I love my spouse? No. Would I love her any less without marriage? No. But marriage is a matter of basic fairness, not only for us, but for our nine-year-old son, who is just now beginning to learn in school the principles of our country: that all men [sic] are created equal; that there is liberty and justice for all.

May the Supreme Court do the right thing, both for all of the practical benefits that marriage gives to same-sex couples, but also in order to contribute to the well-being of our children and reinforce our country’s fundamental values for the generations of young people that will learn of the decision they make.

In the meantime, Helen and I will celebrate 20 years together, legal or not. Here’s to the next 20, my love.

Mombian: Sustenance for Lesbian Moms


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