In-Laws and Out-Laws

As we await the Supreme Court’s decisions on DOMA and Prop 8, I think back to 1997 when I first protested for the freedom to marry. My partner Laurie and I stood outside on a raw sleety Valentine’s day in Pittsburgh, with a sign that said “I do” in big letters surrounded by words like “vote” and “pay taxes”. I gave a speech about St. Valentine as a radical marriage activist, performing Christian marriages for couples at a time when the state forbade it.

At that time we were challenging the institution of marriage and its injustices. We wanted to prove our relationships were just as faithful, committed, loving, and socially worthy as those of straight couples who were privileged by a long list of rights and benefits to which we were not entitled. All of us who have fought for marriage equality, intimately familiar with the list of >1000 benefits that accrue to married couples, ought to recognize that another class of people – unmarried people — a status most of us have “enjoyed” for a long time as we waited and continue to wait for same-gender marriage – are denied health care, citizenship, and other rights and privileges as a matter of course. When Massachusetts legalized same-gender marriage nine years ago, feminist Jewish theologian Judith Plaskow and her partner Martha Ackelsberg clearly articulated the justice issues at stake in their decision not to be married after being together for two (now nearly three) decades. Are we a movement that values all families, as our bumper stickers once said, or do we only value legally married ones? This question is pertinent to the LGBT movement as a whole, but especially important in our More Light movement as we work out the role of the Church in changing marriage and family life.

As a bi person the absurdity of marriage inequality is patently obvious: given that my partner might be any gender, the arbitrariness of the state — happy to honor one relationship, but not another, regardless of its quality — is nonsensical. Trans people & their partners experience the state’s caprice when their marriages are thrown into all manner of legal upheaval over gender transitions. I made a political commitment in the early 1990s that I would not avail myself of heterosexual privilege and marry a partner who happened to be male, as long as I was forbidden to marry a partner who was not male. However, as marriage equality unfolded in Massachusetts it quickly became clear to me how heterosexual privilege persists even when the gender restrictions of marriage are relaxed at the state level. Not only does the federal government’s unequal treatment of same-gender couples continue (for now), but also, more perniciously, heteronormativity inserts itself into the little things, from wedding traditions to parenting decisions to everyday role negotiation.

“Biblical marriage” only reminds us of the institution’s injustices, especially the people-as-property roots of marital relationships. My pastor at Sixth Presbyterian Church, Deb Gaussman, was the first person I met who protested the use of the word husband (“why?” I asked. “Look it up” she said. And I did.) Jesus, himself unmarried, stood on the side of eunuchs and widows and other unmarried types, and put forth a Biblical model of radical inclusion beyond marriage. I know there has been a reclaiming of marriage toward a progressive model of Christian sexual ethics. Indeed much has been said for these new models at weddings, from inclusive language liturgies to theologies of intimacy …. but I still wonder why the state would need to be involved in any of that. Supporters of same-gender marriage are some of the first to point out that there is no relationship between the legal status of marriage and the worthiness of a relationship, as witnessed by any number of short and meaningless celebrity marriages.

I continue in my commitment to resist marriage; this is indeed costly if each partner is not privileged with a fully benefited job, US citizenship, and disposable income to bear the extra tax burden. Unmarried couples take greater risks in their ability to care for each other in sickness, or in their ability to provide care for their children. I joke about having “out-laws” rather than “in-laws,” but the lack of legal status is no light matter when one tallies the costs. And I know I am the one marked as out-law, not my relations. Many friends who made similar commitments have ultimately found they could not afford it; their capitulation to marriage was also a form of protest, marrying solely for citizenship, for health care, for housing, or to protect their parental rights. They did not experience a freedom to marry; on the contrary, they married due to economic or political constraint.

Given our reality that the state is tangled up in our relationships, it is all the more important to fight for the right of Presbyterian Teaching Elders to participate as witnesses to marriage as moments of great meaning. As I was quoted at GA in 2000 (in language colorfully constructed by Bill Moss), when ministers were banned from blessing any same-sex unions,with or without legal recognition: “They’re saying a minister can bless a lesbian’s home, a minister can bless a lesbian’s poodle, but that minister cannot bless my relationship.”

I would hope that as we celebrate and fight for the blessing of the lesbian’s relationship, we do not forget the importance of blessing the home or the poodle; we need to be mindful of the great divide we have created between married and unmarried, in-laws and out-laws. How do we fight for the freedom to marry and yet ensure that it remains a true freedom — freedom to marry balanced equally with the freedom not to marry? How can we as a movement resist heteronormativity within and without marriage, and build new ways of being in relationship?

One important way to do this, as in resisting other forms of privilege, is to notice who is outside the circle. National data suggest about half of Americans are single now, compared with only 22 percent in 1950; do our churches reflect these demographics? If not, why not? Can we include unmarried equality in our struggle for economic and social justice? Will we be there as a More Light movement when we see rights stripped away from domestic partners as marriage laws are enacted? Will we work to decouple marital status from access to critical rights and privileges?

How do we treat unmarried people – both single people and unmarried people in relationships – in our More Light Churches? How do we treat divorced and widowed people? How about those who are not legally divorced or widowed, but for whom the pain is no less real? I suspect based on my own experience in several More Light communities that there are churches out there extending an authentic welcome of this kind; I also know it is still too rare. How is this welcome made known? How can our churches, or even the Church, be an example for other communities who seek to learn to do likewise?

You can learn more about Donna Riley at our MLP Movement Authors page. All her posts can be found here.

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