06/13/2007 08:54 pm ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Privilege and Respect

A good friend of mine lost her mother last week. A sudden turn in health sent her to the hospital for emergency surgery. My friend sat, held her mom's hand, sang songs as her mother's body slowly broke down to the point of no return. At the end, she was there to say goodbye. The death was fast, the grieving, will last forever.

Tomorrow, there will be a vote on gay marriage in Massachusetts. Will the legislators reopen a decision already made? Do the people of Massachusetts get to vote on my right to be married?

All I can think about is my friend and her mother.

Who gets to be recognized in moments of crisis?

For all the arguments about gay marriage, pro and con, for me, it boils down to basic dignity. When someone we love is dying, we want to be there. In any other state in the country, gays and lesbians are routinely denied access to their partners and sometimes their children. Until three years ago, when in Goodridge vs. the Department of Public Health, the highest court in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts ruled:

"Marriage is a vital social institution," wrote Chief Justice Margaret H. Marshall for the majority of the Justices. "The exclusive commitment of two individuals to each other nurtures love and mutual support; it brings stability to our society. For those who choose to marry, and for their children, marriage provides an abundance of legal, financial, and social benefits. In turn it imposes weighty legal, financial, and social obligations." The court "affirms the dignity and equality of all individuals," and "forbids the creation of second-class citizens." It reaches its conclusion, the court said, giving "full deference to the arguments made by the Commonwealth." The Commonwealth, the court ruled, "has failed to identify any constitutionality adequate reason for denying civil marriage to same-sex couples."

Isn't that enough?

In Hillary Goodridge's essay, "And You Are?" she describes being shut out of her partner's room after a difficult c-section birth. And then being shut out of the NICU, unable to see her newborn daughter without 'permission.' The bottom line? She was left to rely on the kindness of a random nurse. It could have gone the other way. No law allowed her access. In another, less progressive state? Forget about it.

When I was nine months pregnant with our first child, I remember my partner, having scanned our health care proxies and powers of attorney, coming home one day with a credit card sized copy of both she then clipped onto her key chain. She gave me a copy, too.

Could she pack "the bag?" You know, the bag every non-pregnant spouse is supposed to pack in anticipation of a mad dash to the hospital? No. Two times I gave birth, never a bag packed. But she miniaturized and laminated the documents that would guarantee her access.

No one can read this, I said.

We have to have it, she responded.

We were lucky, no major complications and while our son ended up in the NICU for ten days, we made it a point to meet every nurse. The reality? Hillary had those documents, too. Doesn't make a difference when you are racing from one emergency to the next. No one thinks clearly in those times.

The irony? I never wanted to get married in the first place. It was an archaic, patriarchal structure to own women, deny rights and preserve power through financial exclusion. As a young, radical feminist in college, I was certain I would never marry even if I could. Keep your ridiculous oppressive bullshit to yourselves, I thought.

Back then? I didn't have kids. Or a partner of 16 years.

I keep going back to my friend losing her mother. It is the image of being denied access to a lifelong partner that haunts me. Her parents had been married 48 years. No one questioned her father's right to be there. No one even asked if they were married. It was assumed. At the end of the day, he claimed the body. Signed papers to have it transferred to a crematorium. He decided, with his daughter, what to do.

The grief is huge. It's unbearable. When I think of adding a legal battle on top of such a death... it makes me sick.

I never wanted to get married but now that I am? I can't imagine living without these rights. The argument posed by the Christian right seems more a political power play than a sincere belief their marriages will go straight to hell if two women are married in Massachusetts and the entire nation has to recognize it. And so what if we get divorced a year or two later. Straight people, honored with the deeply sacred right of matrimony get drunk in Vegas, married by an Elvis impersonator and everyone thinks it's a hoot when they get divorced two weeks later (see Dennis Rodman and Carmen Electra). Maybe it's more about whipping people into a frenzy about their religious beliefs, so when Election Day comes, no one is paying much attention to the rest of the candidate's platform.

Tomorrow 200 legislators will sit down and have the opportunity to preserve what has already been decided. Through all the photo ops, and media crush, I can only think about one thing.

My friend holding her mother's hand. The right to be there. The assumption the male in the room was her husband. The reality I will never get that privilege.

I will never get that respect.