Ashley Horan is a Unitarian Universalist minister and the Executive Director of MUUSJA: The Minnesota Unitarian Universalist Social Justice Alliance. She lives in Minneapolis with her partner Karen, their 14-year-old daughter Elizabeth, a very bad cat called Bodhi, and a soon-to-be-born tiny human being.
October 20, 2014
Two years ago today, my beloved and I made promises to one another in front of many of the people we love best in the world. In the language of our faith, we made a covenant—a deep, binding promise between the two of us, held and reinforced by our community, and sustained by that holy and sacred power of creativity that gives us life, known by many as God. With our family and friends as witnesses, we named all that we aspire to together, with word and symbol and ritual… and then, we celebrated at the best party we’ve ever been to.
Our commitment ceremony was a very important threshold for us and our relationship. It made public all that we had known to be true between us, and it linked us with the millennia of ancestors who have ritually recognized the creation of families of many kinds throughout the ages.
Our commitment ceremony was NOT, however, a wedding. We very intentionally avoided words like “marriage” and “wedding” and “spouse.” Some of our community thought we were being ridiculous—a rose by any other name, right? But for us, this was an essential distinction: people can commit to one another in a lot of different ways, and build lots of different kinds of families and relationships, but marriage is a very specific term.
Traditionally, it refers to the binding of a union between two people—usually a man and a woman—which is recognized by a civil or governmental authority as the marker of kinship ties and legitimacy. While most religious and spiritual traditions have ceremonies to recognize committed relationships, and civil and religious marriage are often conflated, there are very clear benefits associated with state-recognized marriage that are generally not conferred upon committed people who have not chosen to have their union affirmed by a civil authority. These include spousal visitation rights, death benefits, powers of decision making and inheritance, property rights, parental recognition, joint health coverage, and many more.
In short, civil/legal marriage is the gateway to many benefits that are generally NOT available to non-married people, both single and partnered.
Why didn’t we want to get married, you might ask?
First, we understood our commitment to each other as primarily covenantal, rather than legal: we were making promises to each other, to our community, and to the Holy… not to the State.
Second, we are a part of a long line of queer folks (and in Karen’s case, communities of Color) who have insisted that WE—not the State, not the church, not societal convention—decide what our families look like, what kind of promises we make to one another, and how we want to be in relationship with each other. WE get to say to each other, “You are my family,” and thereby make it true, whether or not it is affirmed by the capricious whims of the reigning regime.
Third, and perhaps most importantly, we deeply believe that all humans deserve basic care and protection from the state, whether or not they choose to shape their lives and their relationships in a particular way. We believe all of us deserve health care… the right to be recognized as parents to the children we raise, regardless of our biological relationships… access to our partners when they are ill… the opportunity to help our partners qualify for citizenship… the ability to care for one another beyond death by passing along property and money to those we leave behind.
And, we believe that any fight that aims to expand access to these rights to some, but not ALL people, is not enough.
We know that for many LGBTQ people, the recent wave of same-sex marriage legalization has been hugely important and deeply emotionally significant. It has made many among us feel visible and affirmed for the first time. It has granted access to important rights to many couples and their families. It will, quite literally, save some lives, and make life easier for many, many more.
The movement to make these victories possible brought many, many people who had never been activists before into the public fray; it brought disparate groups together in common struggle.
But the marriage equality fight has also been, in some ways, a huge distraction. It has taken billions of dollars (from all sides of the issue) and diverted them from other, less funded Queer causes. It has been led largely by White, educated, middle and upper-class Gays and Lesbians, and has often not included the leadership, perspectives, and needs of other Queers, gender non-conforming people, and communities of Color.
It has even used divisive identity politics to suggest that certain communities are the “enemy” of Gay marriage, thereby insulting, ignoring, and delegitimizing the lived experiences of Queer members of those communities. It has more often than not lacked an intersectional lens, and has failed to examine elements of racism, transphobia, classism, ableism, misogyny, and capitalism have tainted the marriage equality movement’s ability to represent a broad swath of people with diverse identities.
In short, while we are genuinely happy for those among our community who have so long awaited access to legal marriage, and all that it entails, we don’t believe that “we’ve won” the fight for Gay rights yet. And we don’t see civilly-recognized marriage as something we yearn for in our own relationship, for both religious and political reasons.
So, last week, when we were informed that Karen’s employer was eliminating “domestic partners” as a category of family relationship that qualifies people for insurance coverage under their plan, we were upset.
As of January 1, 2015, our relationship—whose legitimacy we had to prove already with a stack of documents and legal affidavits when we first applied for coverage—will no longer be considered valid unless we also present a marriage certificate. Without one, I will be dropped from Karen’s insurance, she will not be legally recognized as our soon-to-be-born child’s parent, and the baby won’t be insured, either.
In order to get married, we will also pay all the fees associated with applying for a license, paying a civil officiant, filing the signed marriage certificate, and hiring a lawyer to guide us through the complicated processes of merging our finances, documenting legal parenthood of our child, creating married versions of our wills and advance directives, and more.
This will not be a hardship for us. We have generous family and friends to help us cover costs, and in the end, we will be more legally secure and protected than we are now. This is, in many ways, what I have taken to referring to this week as a “#FirstWorldGayProblem.”
But make no bones about it, we feel as if we are being forced to get married. The passage of same-sex marriage legislation in our state has actually disqualified us from benefits for which we were previously deemed eligible, and is making it necessary for us to choose between our principled, deeply thought-out desire to define our relationship religiously and not civilly, and our need for healthcare and legal protection and recognition as family.
We know we are lucky, personally, to be able to access a pathway to all the rights that get conferred upon you when you’re married. But we’re also keenly aware that this option still isn’t available to many, many people for a variety of reasons, and that the two-people-who-are-romantically-involved-and-committed style of partnership is not one that works for or is accessible to everyone who needs healthcare, parental rights, immigration access, and so many other things.
So, friends and comrades, consider this our unofficial wedding announcement. Sometime over the next six weeks, before the new life I’m carrying emerges from my body, we will go down to city hall and get legally married. Don’t be offended if you’re not invited; we’re not really doing much of a celebration for this particular milestone.
But, since everyone knows when you get married, you get to create a wedding registry and expect the gifts to pour in, we do want some things from you! You can give us one or more of them, or—even better—you can work with someone else to collaborate on any of the following items:
1. If you donated money to a marriage equality fight over the last few years, commit to giving equal dollars to another organization working for trans* rights, or fighting queer youth homelessness, or elevating the voices of black and brown queer folks, etc.
Some suggestions include Tysn MN, Southerners on New Ground, Brown Boi Project, Sylvia Rivera Law Project (SRLP), Center on Halsted, Howard Brown Health Center, and many more. Even if you didn’t give money to marriage equality the first time around, consider donating to these organizations now.
2. If you volunteered your time in canvassing, phone banking, having one-to-one conversations, attending rallies, or getting out the vote for marriage equality, commit to donating an equal or greater number of hours to another queer cause, or intersectional social justice campaign.
Show up to protest mass incarceration and police brutality; work with your local affordable housing coalition; volunteer to support the agenda of small organizations led by the communities most directly affected by injustice.
3. If you supported marriage equality because it gives a wider swath of people access to various rights, commit to working for campaigns that expand those rights to ALL people.
Support work for universal and/or single-payer health care, comprehensive immigration reform, tax reform, prison abolition, and racial and economic justice.
4. Read more about why a lot of queer folks and people of color resist legal marriage as the pathway toward rights and benefits many of us consider to be basic human rights.
Start with this article by Dean Spade and Craig Willse: Marriage Will Never Set Us Free.
We’ll get married and probably be glad for the things it brings us. We’ll put on our best clothes and look seriously cute and come to your wedding, if you choose to get married, and we’ll dance our butts off and rejoice in the fact that you have access to an institution that protects you and your family.
And, then, when it’s all over and the DJ packs up her turntables and the appetizers are all gone, we’ll all grab each other’s hands, we’ll look at one another in the eyes, and we’ll ask, “Do you take this life, this struggle for collective liberation, for better or for worse, as long as we all shall live?”
And then we’ll all laugh, and each say, “Yes. I do.”