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Thinking about Same-Sex Marriage and Disability

Posted May 18 2012 5:32pm

The pundits are writing the story of “gay marriage.” It’s all about politics. It’s all about elections. It’s all about civil rights. It’s all about being on the right or wrong side of history. Newsweek stole an idea from Toni Morrison (who once called Bill Clinton “The First Black President”) and identified Barack Obama as “The First Gay President.” The New Yorker imposed a rainbow theme on the columns that adorn the front of the White House. Pollsters are trying to determine whether Obama’s endorsement of same-sex marriage – and his subsequent promise to work toward the repeal of the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) – will hurt or help him in the November election. Though I am reluctant to admit that I am caught up in all the hoopla, I must say that I am elated that the subject of same-sex marriage is, for at least a brief moment, at the center of US public consciousness and discourse.

The implications of this discussion for my personal life are greater than they have ever been. As a lesbian suffering from SPMS, legalized same-sex marriage would allay my fears about who will be entitled to speak for me should I become unable to speak for myself. In the event of my incapacitation, my partner (the person who best knows my most intimate fears and desires) would automatically be called upon to make decisions about my care and about when it’s time to discontinue efforts to keep my body alive. Should I be hospitalized, my partner’s rights to visit me in an intensive care unit or during restricted visiting hours, to receive confidential medical information about me, and to enjoy the other benefits of being considered my “next of kin” would be legally guaranteed rather than granted at the whim of family members or hospital personnel.

Should I precede her in death, my partner would be exempt to the same degree as heterosexual spouses from federal estate and gift taxes on the property that I bequeath to her. While this might seem inconsequential considering my relative lack of wealth, it is important to remember that this includes exemption from taxation on that property which sustains us in daily life –our home, vehicles registered in my name, and money in bank accounts, for instance. Of course, I would receive the same exemption from federal taxation if she were to precede me in death, and this is no small matter considering that if I lost her I would lose my primary source of physical care and emotional support.


 Though I make no claims to any amount of legal expertise, my guess is that the repeal of the federal DOMA would mean that even if individual states did not recognize same-sex marriages federal benefits would apply to any couple married in a US state or in a country that recognizes same-sex marriage. In other words, couples married in states or countries where same-sex marriage is legal but living in states that prohibit it would enjoy the federal benefits of marriage even if their states did not confer on them the state-based rights of marriage.

Of course, my partner and I have with some effort organized our lives in such a way as to reproduce many of these material benefits even without the repeal of DOMA and/or the legalization of same-sex marriage. What’s more, I am generally opposed to legislation that confers particular benefits upon couples, thereby relegating to second-class citizenship those who choose not to enter into marriages or equivalent relationships. I believe, in other words, that civil rights (the rights of citizenship) should apply equally to all, regardless of marital status. Why then am I so invested in this national conversation on marriage? Why does it feel so important to me to have my marriage legally recognized and supported?

Because each morning my partner jokes and teases me as she helps me out of the tub and into my wheelchair. Because as she helps me dress she often stops to caress my cheek and laugh with me. Because she tells me nearly every day that she loves me and that I’m beautiful. Because she has never once expressed irritation at my requests for assistance. Because she insists on going with me to every neurologist appointment and on asking questions as if her well-being depended on the answers as much as mine does. Because she claims that she doesn’t mind the fact that I cannot drive any longer and tells me that driving me around is “good” for her because it forces her to spend relaxing time away from the piles of work she brings home. Because even after long days at work she worries about my emotional and physical needs.

My partner and I have collected a stack of legal documents – wills, powers of attorney, living wills, a civil union from Vermont – designed to communicate our desire to be treated as if we were legally married should anything happen to one or both of us. These legal protections are our attempt to assert some control over the way the story of our relationship is told both to the people we love and care about and to the systems at whose mercy we may someday find ourselves. Those documents, however, do not communicate that our relationship is, at its very core, a marriage marked by intense interdependence and by the kind of generosity toward one another that can only be inspired by deep love and commitment.

In the end, it’s clear to me that the argument against same-sex marriage is based on the assumption that rights are a zero sum game, the belief that if civil rights are distributed equally their value will somehow be diminished. Rhetoric about the “sanctity” of marriage and morality is a smokescreen meant to distract us from the real questions about whether we believe in civil liberty and equal access to the privileges of citizenship. For if this were really a debate about the relationships we share with our partners, then same-sex marriages would fare no worse and no better in the analysis than do heterosexual marriages. This debate is about politics, elections, civil rights, and being on the right or wrong side of history; it’s also about the lives of real people whose love for and commitment to our partners deserves—at the very least—legal recognition.

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