Once every 10 years, I get married. The first time was on June 15, 1991, when Madeline and I said vows in front of our closest family and friends. We were astonished by the explosion of joy, as if we’d been lifted into some unseen dimension.
Some aunts and cousins were hurt at not having been invited; we’d danced at their weddings, and they wanted to dance at ours. But back then we were too anxious to invite more than a trusted handful, too embarrassed to dance: Who had ever heard of two women marrying?
By coincidence, the second time was exactly 10 years later. This past June, Madeline and I were in Vermont for two friends’ civil union; as long as we were there, we had one too.
On his day lily farm, a local justice of the peace said a few official words before we kissed. Compared with our first exhilarating ceremony, the civil union was flat. But that wasn’t surprising: Our second time was mainly practical.
Most people don’t think about the legal meaning of their marriage certificate. When they think about marriage, they think about the big party or the unnervingly solemn vows or the affection and annoyances of a daily life together. But it’s the civil recognition that will let them take care of each other when things are rough.
Civil marriage is an unbelievably comprehensive shorthand, a shared legal mailbox that lets such institutions as employers, courts, pension programs, life insurers, health insurers, frequent flyer programs, jails, hospitals, food stamp programs, banks, cemeteries — and more — figure out which relationships to take seriously. It’s the way law adjudicates an incredible array of disputes about who counts to whom in times of sickness, crisis, separation, and death.
Without the governmental watermark of civil marriage, Madeline and I remain, after 15 years together, legal strangers. Yes, we’ve signed and notarized papers that give us a few thin legal ties. But we never manage to update them, as lawyers advise. Who wants to sit down once a year and re-sign those grim instructions about who can donate your organs or dispose of your remains?
That’s why we got the civil union — which, officially, has force only in Vermont. Secretly, my hope is that here in Massachusetts authorities will use this certificate as evidence of our bond when one of us is hit by a car or cancer or whatever crisis life has in store.
Unfortunately, treating me as Madeline’s next-of-kin might soon be illegal in Massachusetts. A proposed constitutional amendment is built around a sneaky little phrase: “Only the union of one man and one woman shall be valid or recognized as a marriage.”
Under the title “Defense of Marriage Act,” a sentence much like that was passed in 1996 by Congress and signed into law by President Clinton. The federal Defense of Marriage Act bans Madeline and me from any of the 1,049 federal recognitions that hinge on marriage. It means, for instance, that when death comes, we can’t inherit the other’s “half” of our house without a hefty tax penalty or draw on the Social Security benefits the other has paid all her working life.
The proposed Massachusetts amendment is even more terrifyingly broad. It would ban same-sex couples not just from the volatile M-word but also from “its legal equivalent” or from “the benefits or incidents exclusive to marriage.” It would insist that we couldn’t have marriage, or anything like it — not civil unions, domestic partnership, nor shared health insurance.
And if it were on our state ballot today, polls suggest that it would pass with 61 percent of the vote. Why would anyone want to prevent Madeline and me from taking care of each other in sickness and in health, for richer or for poorer, and even after death?
On June 15, 2012, Madeline and I hope to get married a third time. Same-sex couples already have full marriage rights in the Netherlands; Canada and Belgium will probably soon follow suit. And many developed countries — Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Finland, France, Germany, parts of Australia — have some parallel system of recognition that offer same-sex pairs at least half of marriage’s recognitions.
If ever the United States catches up with our more advanced neighbors, I’m hoping to persuade Madeline to hold the really big bash, complete with distant cousins, party favors, acres of food, and even dancing. We’re going to keep doing this until we get it right — or rather, until our government gets it right.
© 2002, E.J. Graff
E.J. Graff is author of “What Is Marriage For?
The Strange Social History of Our Most Intimate Institution.”
This article first ran in the Boston Globe, February 12, 2002,
and is reprinted with permission.