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Lesbian Notions

Unveiling the Drawbacks of Marriage Activism

Paula Martinac | August 4, 2003

Roddy Shaw & Nelson Ng in Hong Kong want to marry in Canada (AFP) All the recent renewed attention on same-sex marriage makes me nervous. U.S. gay couples can now marry legally in Canada, and many are traveling there to tie the knot, as the Rev. Troy Perry of the Metropolitan Community Church has encouraged us all to do. They may then come home and start checking off "married" instead of "single" on official forms and applications, or even filing their taxes jointly. Alternately, they might try to test the waters of the ruling in Lawrence v. Texas, which extended privacy rights to gay couples, and file lawsuits when their applications for marriage licenses are denied.

But are such actions wise? Some well-intentioned but perhaps not clearly thought-out measures by lesbian and gay couples - taken on their own, without the counsel of major gay organizations - could backfire, hurting them and setting the same-sex marriage movement back several steps. If that happens, however, it won't be entirely the fault of those couples, who are yearning to have their primary relationships acknowledged. Gay organizations will also be to blame, since they are well aware of the pitfalls couples face in undertaking marriage activism and haven't stressed the drawbacks strongly enough.

Consider that, in the wake of Ontario's historic ruling on same-sex marriage, five of the major U.S. gay groups working for marriage rights posted a document online called "Thinking of Getting Married in Canada?" The advisory asserted that "when couples who marry in Canada come home � they will be as married as any people on the planet." The document then listed all the different ways they could identify as such - "on applications/forms for jobs, apartments, credit, mortgages, insurance, medical treatment, and taxes." But the warnings to couples were pretty mild: "Some but not all businesses, states, and others will refuse to honor these lawful marriages, along with the federal government." At the very end, in a spot easily overlooked, the missive suggested contacting a gay organization before undertaking a lawsuit.

Let's be more specific about the possible ramifications for same-sex couples. Without an Employment Non-Discrimination Act, is it wise to suggest that gay people can be open at work or with potential employers about their same-sex spouses? Not all of us have jobs where we feel so comfortable - which is the reason we need ENDA. When I was writing a book on same-sex marriage several years ago, I interviewed a lesbian who had been slapped with a sexual harassment suit by a co-worker simply for having a photo of her lover on her desk.

More questions: If a couple united in Canada comes home to a state or city without a gay rights law, what will they face when they look for an apartment as a married couple? Or if one of them needs emergency medical treatment, will a Canadian marriage really stop clueless hospital staff in the United States from discriminating against them with regard to visitation rights?

Then there's the sticky matter of taxes. Under the Defense of Marriage Act, the U.S. government won't recognize marriages that aren't between a man and a woman. Reporter Laura Conaway of the Village Voice (New York City) investigated what might happen to a same-sex couple who marries in Canada and then files a joint federal tax return; disturbingly, she found that the IRS would very likely red-flag their 1040 for an audit, and that penalties might include fines and imprisonment. Add to that the 37 states with their own mini-DOMAs, which could place couples in hot water for their local taxes, too.

Of course, some U.S. couples might be aware of the potential legal problems and still decide to wed in Canada (or in a state where gay marriage becomes legal). If they're doing so for their own emotional needs, that's completely understandable; the desire to marry is deeply rooted in many of us, and there have been a number of moving stories about gay couples who embarked on Vermont civil unions or Canadian marriages for purely symbolic reasons.

However, I hope most of these couples won't rush to try to have their marriages legally recognized at home. Decisions about which lawsuits would make the best test cases for gay marriage are better left to the activists who work daily for our rights, and who are able to view same-sex marriage as part of a bigger picture, not just as individual couples here and there. Gay couples considering lawsuits would do well to think less about self-interest and more about the good of the whole community. Remember that Rosa Parks wasn't just a tired black woman who spontaneously decided not to give up her seat on the bus to a white man - she was working in tandem with the NAACP, and was a trained, longtime activist for civil rights.

Paula Martinac is a Lambda Literary Award-winning author of seven books and editor in chief of Q Syndicate.



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