Last month marked the 30th anniversary of my marriage to Mr. J. The wedding was in a park, under a gazebo. We invited 50 people and 25 were able to attend, which is about what we were expecting. I found the dress on a department store sale rack right after prom season. It wasn’t designed as a wedding dress but did well at a small outdoor wedding. Family catered the reception; friends took pictures and provided live music. It was an inauspicious start to what has been (and remains) a partnership and love affair. Like all marriages there have been ups and downs, many good days and a few bad, but never once have I regretted marrying my beloved.
Love and affection aside, a marriage is a legal arrangement. It is the difference between an “emergency contact” and “next of kin.” It is the legal relationship with shared children. It is a joint mortgage and checking account and presumed rights of inheritance. I wake every day with the knowledge that should disaster strike Mr. J will make any needed medical and financial decisions. The birth of our first child was difficult. When it was all over and done with the doctor patted my leg (that’s what it looked like, anyway, I couldn’t feel a thing) and said “just think, 100 years ago you and the baby both would have died.” When it became clear that the delivery would be a little different than we had planned, and I became completely preoccupied with the physicality of things, Mr. J’s was the only voice I could hear. It was as if the doctors and nurses were speaking another language. The doctors would talk to Mr. J and he would talk with me. I would whisper to him and he would talk with the doctors and nurses. I knew everything would be okay because he was with me. He could make decisions for me because we are legally married. There were no questions about it. No one else needed to be consulted.
The terrible night when he was hours late getting home because his train was stuck in a tunnel and he couldn’t call, as I put the kids to bed and hoped my answer to their questions about where Daddy was (“he had to work late”) was correct, I contemplated the worst. He is never late and there had been some violent incidents near where he worked. Of all the thoughts that went through my mind, none involved inheritance issues. If anything should happen to either of us there is no doubt that the other would inherit retirement benefits, joint holdings, and all out other worldly goods. There would be no questions about it.
People will say that a marriage license is just a piece of paper. Yes, and so is a mortgage, a car loan, a deed, a diploma, a medical insurance card, and any number of other pieces of paper that guide and construct our lives. My train pass is a piece of paper. SEPTA won’t let ride without one. I can get insurance for my car because I have a piece of paper saying I (we) own it. Someone who attends four years of college classes but doesn’t get a diploma may know as much or more than a student who does
not graduate but it is hard to prove it.
A newspaper columnist once asked “who
are you more likely to loan money to, your daughter’s boyfriend or your
son-in-law?” The extended and strong
family ties that a marriage certificate cements are an enormous benefit to a
I thought of these things as I read Lori Schreiber’s column in the Philadelphia Gay News. Schreiber, an Abington Township commissioner, is writing about the marriage licenses being issued by Montgomery County and the conversations she has had with her partner about applying for one. She writes:
Since Tuesday, we again had the conversation that none of my straight friends have had. Do we go through a marriage that most likely will need a “re-do” to afford us all of the rights and privileges our government has bestowed on married couples? Do we have the “skim-milk” marriage?
Pennsylvania does not currently recognize same-sex marriage so the licenses, while no doubt a symbolic victory, would not guarantee Ms. Schreiber and her partner the same rights and privileges that Mr. J and I enjoy (and take for granted). The two of them surely love each other as much as Mr. J and I do. They probably have the same arguments about the best way to load the dishwasher, the same negotiations about where to go on vacation, the same discussions on the household budget, and the same enjoyment of quiet companionable evenings at home. But they cannot have the same confidence that one can speak for the other in a medical emergency, or that if the worst happens one can inherit from the other. They do not have the same legal relationship that my husband I do.
All Pennsylvanians deserve the same piece of mind that my household enjoys; their pieces of paper should mean the same thing my piece of paper does. Ms. Schreiber and her partner deserve a marriage in the fullest sense of the word.