What's in a word? The word marriage?
There was, and continues to be, tremendous debate about the meaning of the word "marriage." In the last few years, gay marriage came first gradually, then as a torrent, to different states -- whether through public votes, legislation or court decisions. Finally, the SCOTUS ruling of June 26 made it the law of the land in all 50 states. At each advancement of gay rights, the outrage on the Right has escalated. Their concerns about religious liberty are always focused on the rights of those with objections to gay marriage -- the florists, the photographers, the clerks charged with issuing marriage licenses -- lest they be offended by serving gay people. These business transactions are part of their jobs and occur at the start of a marriage. But what happens later -- at the end -- with and without marriage? Sadly, I have deep and tragic personal experience with both.
After a relatively successful long-term straight marriage ended in divorce, I met Larry -- a man I was very much taken with. (In case you're wondering, my ex-wife knew I was gay when we met in college. Marrying a woman was what a gay man did in the South 40 years ago.) We lived together as committed partners, but we could not get a legal partnership or be married in Illinois at the time. Early on, I mentioned that I wished we could get married -- his reply? "Dude... face it. We're married."
Unfortunately, Larry suffered ill health in his last year and died unexpected on June 30, 2011. Although we considered ourselves married, neither the law nor the family saw it that way. In his last days, I had to wait for his brother to make medical decisions since I could not. The day after Larry died, the family came in and gave me 30 days to move out. Since they were selling the house, I got to pack Larry's things, then mine, too. I had no claim to our home, to our things, to financial assets, nor was I allowed to make any decisions. I also had no say in any service for Larry. If there was any way to make a tragic death worse, this was it. I lost my love, my home and my financial security all at once.
Months later, after I began dating again, I met Marc through a dating app. A first text turned into phone calls which became a first date. From there, I traveled to NYC to spend most every weekend with him until I moved in that summer. We were married in March of 2013. We enjoyed the excitement of planning our small but lovely ceremony held at a friend's apartment. We loved our life together as husband and husband.
Marc had a long list of health problems and it was really a medical miracle that he lived long enough for us to meet and be together. While those issues were chronic, he managed to deal with them and live a full, productive and happy life. When he suddenly passed away at the end of June, it was hard to say it was totally unexpected, but a shock nonetheless.
As I deal with grief yet again, I marvel at the difference the word "marriage" makes. I talked with Marc's family about his wishes while planning the service but at every step, they assured me that those decisions were mine to make and would be respected. The service was a beautiful remembrance of Marc's life well-lived.
Because of our legal marriage, I am not forced to move suddenly or fight over access to our assets. At every turn, people have been compassionate and caring. But most importantly... I share the love, support and respect of Marc's family and friends -- our family and friends -- during this time of loss.
So marriage is not just the giddy beginning of a life together, but also what happens throughout and at the end. Justice Kennedy's beautiful words are spot on:
No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice and family. In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than once they were... Marriage embodies a love that may endure even past death. It would misunderstand these men and women to say they disrespect the idea of marriage. Their plea is that they do respect it, respect it so deeply that they seek to find its fulfillment for themselves. Their hope is not to be condemned to live in loneliness, excluded from one of civilization's oldest institutions. They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law.
Thank God that everyone in the United States can now share in the dignity of marriage.