Once upon a time, same-sex couples had no legal rights. We could not get married, nor could we enjoy the many legal and financial benefits of that institution -- making medical decisions for our ailing partners, filing our taxes jointly, sharing in Social Security benefits, etc. In the eyes of the law, same-sex couples were nothing more than roommates.
Well, that all just changed. In a landmark ruling, the United States Supreme Court has done what once seemed unthinkable, telling our nation once and for all that gays and lesbians are, in the eyes of the law, just like every other U.S. citizen, with all the same rights and privileges, including the right to marry. Writing for a 5-4 majority, Justice Anthony Kennedy states the case simply and clearly: "[Gay people] ask for dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right."
But what this really means for the LGBT community is not yet clear. To be honest, I find myself thinking about my birthday in 1974 when I got a much-desired Rubik's Cube as a gift. I was thrilled -- until I started playing with the darn thing and realized that it was a LOT more complicated than expected. I'm thinking that for many gays and lesbians, marriage may be the new Rubik's Cube.
And why would it not be?
For centuries, our relationships had no legal standing. We did not have equal protection under the laws, as guaranteed by the U.S. constitution. And because we were not allowed to play by the same rules as everyone else, we decided we didn't want that sort of life anyway. Instead, we created our own somewhat insular world, with unique (and sometimes hedonistic) rules, and we worked pretty darn hard to convince ourselves that without the fetters of marriage we were free to think, act, drink, drug, sex and spend in whatever ways we wanted. And, for the most part, we were at least semi-satisfied with the "rights" and "freedoms" we'd granted ourselves. But still, no matter how hard we pretended to be happy with what we had, we knew that heterosexual couples who'd been together for five minutes had more benefits than same-sex couples who'd been together 50 years. And that did sort of piss us off.
Now that's over. We've got our Rubik's Cube. And we find ourselves in the midst of a milieu (marriage) that we have little to no idea how to navigate. In other words, we don't know how to negotiate the legal, financial and personal aspect of lawfully sanctioned long-term intimacy, because we've never done it before. We don't have any role models to show us how two men or two women can successfully be married. This means we are going to have to learn by trial and error, and that some of us are almost certain to make some pretty awful mistakes along the way.
Think about the following:
- Before we had the opportunity to marry, there was little to negotiate if/when we started to date seriously. We didn't need to talk about whether we wanted marriage, or kids, or to intermingle our finances, etc. Now, with marriage, we'll have to make the same sorts of complicated decisions that straight couples face (and often struggle with).
- Breakups may be even more problematic. Before, when we broke up, we just divvied up the CDs and went our separate ways. Now, with marriage, we'll have to deal with courts and lawyers and signatures on pieces of paper and community property laws and all sorts of other stuff. With our new legal rights, we also get legal hassles.
But wait, there's more!
In addition to winning the right to marry, with all the ups and downs associated with that, we've also won the right to fight homophobia on its deepest and most insidious level. And this may be the toughest fight of all. If you don't believe me, then ask an African American who was around immediately after the landmark civil rights decisions of the 1960s and '70s what life was like in that period, and you'll get a fairly accurate picture of what we're still facing. Or you could just read the Supreme Court's dissenting opinion, written by the venerable Antonin Scalia, who calls gay marriage "a threat to American democracy." Really, Antonin?
Admittedly, Antonin Scalia is 79 and he won't be around forever, but there are plenty of other equally homophobic Americans out there, and they're not all elderly. So bigotry against the LGBT community is not going away anytime soon, even with this landmark decision. There will be backlash. Still, I am hopeful that the Supreme Court's ruling will jumpstart the process of true equality, as equal protection under the law sinks in and the ignorance that underlies all forms of bigotry slowly abates.