My dictionary teaches me that marriage is 1) a formal union recognized by law, 2) a combination or mixture of two or more elements. Don't you just love recombinant forms? Romeo and Juliet, warring sides joined by love. Species hybridize, becoming more than themselves. I think marrying differences is living well.
However, my Facebook wall is ablaze with anger and frustration over the proposed anti-LGBT marriage amendment to the North Carolina Constitution, which would also affect heterosexuals in civil unions and domestic partnerships. What has marriage come to mean? A weapon? A blunt tool for political advancement? The Republican proponents of this bill are not really debating about the bonds of matrimony. Nor are they arguing about love, which seduces and joins. From Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann to our own state politicians, marriage is little more than code for discrimination and enmity. And consequently, for us radical lefties who consider same-sex marriage trivial, even a waste of political fervor by supporting a faulty institution, we can no longer afford such a distancing position.
The proposed law is surprisingly arbitrary since a state statute already denies same-sex couples the legal right to marry. For anxious heterosexuals, marriage endures as preciously their own. You have to question the intent of such an amendment. Why are state politicians like James Forrester, Jerry W. Tillman, and Dan Soucek so committed to passing this "defense" when the state economy remains in crisis and unemployment rates have soared above 10 percent? Is it just good old-fashioned hate, tried-and-true? And yet, I wonder if these folks know that for some of us so-called queers, North Carolina already does, and will continue to, recognize us as married.
My partner and I have been talking about getting married. Oh, the possibilities! A vegan reception: tomato risotto cakes, red beet tartare and squash ravioli in cashew cream sauce? A ceremony officiated by a retired Southern Baptist minister-cum-Wiccan priestess? And the fashions: Sarah Jessica Parker wore a black wedding dress; Golden Girls' Blanche Devereaux wore red. But perhaps these are too predictable; a recycled plastic bottle dress by Michelle Brand might be just the ticket.
Planning aside, I must admit that I came of age in an academic culture that reviled any kind of marriage, straight or gay. In seventh-grade English, wearing my sister's shirt and my grandmother's Avon brooch, I cited from Sonia Johnson's The Ship That Sailed Into the Living Room (1991), declaring that marriage was a dangerous patriarchal trap. Little did I know that Johnson and her sister separatists were hardly interested in solidarity with my kind.
Even as an undergrad in the late '90s, it seemed to me that marriage was an extension of property rights: A woman was little more than chattel under the oppressive constraints of wifehood. My own mother, an intelligent Vermont farm girl without a high school diploma, had few options available to her other than the conventions of monogamy and motherhood. She loved her family, but she always longed for something more, something outside of our little township. To my comrades and me, such arrangements ought to be overthrown.
As time has passed, I remain skeptical about marriage, while I am also more accommodating. My compatriots are shuddering. Marriage is ideological, but it has practical applications: immigration, tax and health benefits, and insurance coverage. Marriage can have political merits: Consider the effect Loving v. Virginia had when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that all bans on interracial marriage were unconstitutional, forcing North Carolina into the 20th century—in 1967.
For me, a once-socialist feminist, perhaps the most difficult to digest are the ways that love pulls you toward convention, to safe ground while drifting you into uncertainty. Desire is bumptious, but love wants some assurances as you fall deeper and deeper. In love, we teeter between a fear of loss and the promise of desire; it's no surprise, then, that sensible people consider marriage.
My partner and I have been together for five years. We are legally sexed—what a ridiculous assertion, "legally sexed," but there it is. All our records—licenses, certificates, Social Security cards and passports—assert that he is male and I am female. As a state-recognized heterosexual couple, we can become husband and wife, if we so choose. We love each other and want to be with each other indefinitely. And, no less important, we need good health insurance coverage after a year of serious illness and employment changeover.
By law, North Carolina allows transsexuals to amend their birth certificates when they have sex-reassignment surgery. As a stipulation of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), a transsexual is allowed to marry a member of the opposite sex, and the union is recognized as valid. In Matter of Lovo-Lara, a petitioner born in North Carolina underwent sex change and had her birth records revised. She married a man from El Salvador in North Carolina, and the Board of Immigration Appeals recognized their marriage as legal and binding.
Across the nation, there are inconsistent legal standards for what constitutes marriage, sex and gender. What is true in North Carolina is not necessarily true in other states.
In Oakland County, Mich., Jordan Swan, a transsexual man, was denied a marriage license because his birth certificate says female, even after hormone therapy, top surgery and a hysterectomy. But, when he alters his certificate, which is possible in Michigan, he can marry his fiancée. What exactly makes a man a man?
After the death of her husband in July 2010, Nikki Araguz, a transsexual woman in Texas, was denied survivor benefits because Texas law states that a person's sex is defined at birth: gonads, genitalia and chromosomes. Contrary to Texas law, medical experts say there are at least eight criteria for determining sex including the three above as well as external sex organs, hormones, secondary sex characteristics, assigned sex and gender reared as, and sexual identity. For Araguz, all of her federal records state she is female, but because of her chromosomes the state will only let her marry another woman, ironically, living as a lesbian couple.
The case of Littleton v. Prange set the precedent for the Araguz ruling. Christie Littleton transitioned at 15, having sex reassignment to alter her state-issued identification. She married a man who died, and she filed a malpractice suit. The defense attorney argued that their marriage was invalid because Christie was a transsexual. The defense won. A lawyer for Littleton illustrated the capricious nature of gender and marriage: "Taking this situation to its logical conclusion, Mrs. Littleton, while in San Antonio, Texas, is a male and has a void marriage; as she travels to Houston, Texas, and enters federal property, she is female and a widow; upon traveling to Kentucky she is female and a widow; but, upon entering Ohio, she is once again male and prohibited from marriage; entering Connecticut, she is again female and may marry; if her travel takes her north to Vermont, she is male and may marry a female; if instead she travels south to New Jersey, she may marry a male." This quote highlights the absurdity of institutionalized gender categories and the requirements of marriage across the country.
Proponents of anti-gay marriage legislation may yearn for purity, a sacrosanct articulation of heterosexual love, but it just doesn't exist. Americans are decidedly fickle when it comes to categories such as straight/ gay and man/ woman, let alone married/ divorced. We have never been absolutely gendered or sexually oriented according to any legal ordinance—how we legally identify and whom we marry has been determined variably by states.
So I am left puzzling over how marriage equality in North Carolina necessarily affects transgender people. First, many transgenders and transsexuals identify with, or as, lesbian or gay. Secondly, the new amendment could impact civil unions or domestic partnerships for LGBT couples, unmarried opposite-sex couples and their children.
Lastly, and most significantly, we all have an obligation, a responsibility—you might even call it a debt—to fairness and compassion.
If Forrester, Tillman and Soucek, and their followers are merely calling for a redundant change to the state law, then I think we have to answer the short question I posed earlier: "Yes, hate." This bill is hateful. They may say, "We hate the sin, not the sinner," but this is still hate in the guise of a rhetorical flourish.
Hate is passionate aversion: "I hate you." Hate is also embarrassment: "I hate that I hurt you." I suspect that those who hate LGBT people are also ashamed of themselves, privately and publicly. Privately, only they can know. Publicly, because hate is not a noble affect, we carry its effects into our sleep life. So I invite those folks supporting this legislation to ask themselves: What is your shame? What have you done that you should hate so?
I wish I believed that love triumphs against hate, that responsible North Carolinians will resist the temptation of hating. But hate is wickedly powerful. Hate is old and predates biblical sayings. Wheedled by frustration, I am worried. The fractious climate in the state will not be assuaged; there is, sadly, no common ground. Yet and still, kindness is never an impossible utopia. Part of our obligation to one another is to imagine alternate futures, to hold open possibility. Even a possibility absent of this legislation.