[Contents] [About the Participants] [Opening Statement by Arline Isaacson] [Opening Statement by John Rankin][Dialog] [Questions from the Audience] [Closing Statements]
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Is Same-Sex Marriage Good for the Nation?
Opening Statement by
Arline Isaacson
For many years now, I’ve been spending a lot of time working, as have so many very good people, on trying to win equality, or get a little closer to winning equality, for gay and lesbian citizens in this Commonwealth. I can’t tell you how many forums like this, debates that I have done, but I can tell you and must confess that I am a little out of my depth tonight in a way that I think is worth just mentioning. For most of the years that I’ve been doing this sort of work, I tend to go back and forth with folks whose hostility towards gay people is right out there, on the surface, unequivocally clear. They are very angry people. They carry around big signs that say, “God hates fags.” They are folks who think that gay people, when they are beaten by hoodlums in the street, probably deserved it. They’re folks who proudly and happily call us sick. They’re folks who quote those select few passages in the Bible where homosexuality is censured. And I have to say there is something rather comforting and easy about arguing with kooks like that, because they are when it comes down to it, kooks. But the kooks I’m finding aren’t around that much anymore. You see, they seem to be losing. They seem even to have lost. Most of American was watching Will and Grace on TV last night. So those who wish to ensure that gay people remain less than full citizens in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts or in the nation, they have in large part taken the microphones away from the kooks. These days I find myself hashing things through with people who appear very warm, apparently very bright. Open hostility to gay is out. A polite but firm superiority to us is in. And so I confess I’m not yet fully used to this new modality of discussion and debate. And it will take me, I confess, a little time to get used to.

Anyway, we’re here tonight to debate whether or not my ability to marry the person I love, rather than the person that someone else thinks I ought to love, and I can’t think of a more fundamental freedom than that, my ability to marry the person that I love. We’re here to debate whether or not that’s bad for the nation. Now I know that many well-intentioned people think it is bad. But I’m going to assert tonight that there will come a day when they or perhaps their children, will know better. Gay and lesbian citizens will win the right to marry in this nation. And the nation will be better for it. Now it may not happen this year or next. And it may not even happen in ten years. But it will happen, of this I am absolutely certain. I’m certain because it was only a few decades ago that many well-intentioned Americans thought it was perfectly OK to arrest gay people when they happened to be in a gay establishment, or for holding hands. I’m certain also because we know today that that’s unacceptable and we don’t do it anymore. Not long ago homosexuality was listed as an official psychiatric disorder, and gay people were subjected to shock treatments in mental institutions. Today the psychiatrists seem to worry more about the people whose fear and revulsion of us causes them to do hurtful things to gays. The world has changed, and it is not done changing. And as this nation and the state have changed how we treat African-Americans, Irish Catholics, women, we’ve witnessed the inexorable march of progress to equality as powerful, as unstoppable, and indeed as good, as salutary. And as we talk about this tonight, I’d like to ask you to keep open in your minds and in your hearts, the possibility that you just might be wrong about denying us the right to marry. I ask that you keep open, please, in your minds the possibility that one day, you will look back on these debates and wonder, probably with a little bit of embarrassment, how anyone could have legitimately argued to deny us so fundamental a right as marriage. And as we talk about this tonight -- is same-sex marriage good for the nation? – I’d like to ask also that you try and stay away from dealing in the abstract if you could. It’s always easy to deny a neighbor what is his, what is right, if you keep abstract, philosophical, academic. But marriage is hardly an abstraction. Marriage is a gateway, the only gateway, to thousands of legal rights, benefits, protections and obligations that create stability in families and in the nation. And this is what I’d like to focus my remarks on tonight.

I’d like to start by telling three short stories. One I usually don’t share because it’s about myself. But I’m going to this evening. My partner and I had planned for many years to have children, discussed it ad nauseum. And finally after spending thousands of dollars with lawyers to arrange for it, I became pregnant. In my first pregnancy we learned that I was developing potentially life-threatening complications. We had planned to meet with some lawyers before the actual birth of my first. But two weeks before that appointment was scheduled to take place I went into premature labor. And so there we were, packing up, rushing me to the hospital where likely I was going to have to have surgery. And possibly I might not make it. And yet we didn’t dare go first to the hospital. We said, oh my God, the lawyer’s appointment is in two weeks, we haven’t signed the papers. So we shot down the road, careening through the streets, pouring into the attorney’s office and sat there while I was writhing in labor pain, while the attorneys as fast as they could typed away to create all the documents that were needed for us to sign. Saying to me, now Arline, just read this. Now if you’ve ever been with a woman who’s in labor, let me tell you something. They can’t read legal documents at that particular moment. So I just screamed, throw the documents in front of me, I’ll sign anything. There we were. I was madly writhing, not even hearing what I was told later they were saying to me, which was, now you know Arline, these documents aren’t foolproof. They haven’t all been tested in court. They might not work. But I knew that I had to do something, or try and do something in case I did die. What would happen to my estate, and most importantly, what would happen to the baby. Now it’s a story with a happy ending. I ended up making it through. The baby thankfully is healthy. And now we laugh at it as we look back. But I must tell you that it wasn’t until we got to the hospital, we knew I was in danger, but we didn’t know that the baby was. And I must tell you that in hindsight, as funny as it is now, if God forbid something had happened to that baby, because I had to take an extra hour and sit in a lawyer’s office signing papers that no straight, married couple would ever have to do, I don’t know what I’d have done.

Second story. A Boston firefighter, we’ll call him Bob. He’s been in a relationship for forty years with the same man, a man we’ll call Steve. Bob develops throat cancer. He battles with it for two years. During that period of time his partner, Steve, swabs out his throat each and every day as the doctor told him to do, takes care of him as only any good partner would do. And when eventually Bob passes away, Steve suffers the double loss. He’s just lost the love of his life, and he’s now also lost a desperately needed pension benefit because they are not married. He can’t have that pension.

Third story. Two elderly women from western Massachusetts who would be horrified to think their story is being retold, so I can’t use their names. They’ve been in a relationship for thirty-nine years. The 76-year old one takes seriously ill. She needs to go to a nursing home. Medicaid will pay but in order for that to happen, they have to spend down her assets. They’re forced to sell their home to reimburse Medicaid. And so the 72-year old woman is forced to leave the home they’ve shared for thirty-nine years so that her partner would be OK. If they were married, she would’ve been allowed to stay in that house, at least until she died.

Now I could tell you stories like this all night long. But I’ll move instead next to the overarching question, is same-sex marriage good or bad for the nation? And to answer that I think we need first to ask the question, or at least to agree, what is marriage? Now everyone thinks they know what marriage is, but they’re usually shocked to learn how little they understand of the legal implications of it. I confess I fell into that category until the recent past. So to make sure that we’re all discussing the same thing tonight, let’s deconstruct marriage into its component parts. Let’s not look at it as an image simply, or only, or at all. Let’s look at what marriage really is in the real world in this country today.

So what is marriage? Well, marriage is about love, commitment, mutual support and caring. It’s about taking on the obligation and the responsibility to make life together with someone, and to commit to take care of them until death do you part. We all agree on that. Well, actually no. There are of course some faith traditions, some countries, and some decades even in this country where loveless arranged marriages were or are still the rule. In this country, in this state, civil marriage, legal marriage, state-permitted marriage, is a gateway to over fourteen-hundred legal benefits, rights, and responsibilities, most of which are critical in times of emergency, stress, grief.

Now what do I mean by gateway to benefits, rights, and responsibilities? Your right to receive health insurance for you and your children from your spouse’s employer; your right to receive their pension benefits when they pass away; your right to visit them in the hospital to make medical decisions for them; to receive bereavement leave when they pass away; to have the unquestioned right to make their burial arrangements. All these rights flow automatically from legal, state-permitted civil marriage. Your right to adopt children, to receive social security benefits, Medicare, workers compensation, disability. All these rights are driven by the right to legal, state-permitted civil marriage. Your right to retain ownership of your home and your car if your spouse passes away. Your right to be automatically deemed a parent for the child you planned for, conceived together, adopted together, bring home together, and raise together. All these stem from the right to legal, state-permitted civil marriage. Your right to continue living in the home you’ve shared for thirty years when your spouse is forced into a nursing home and Medicaid wants to deplete your assets and sell the home to pay for the nursing care. Protections like this all stem from civil marriage.

And so put all these together and what is the composite picture? How do same-sex couples stack up, compare to our heterosexual counterparts? I’ll make up a fictitious couple, we’ll call them Susan and Mary, a lesbian couple in a long-term loving relationship, caring, committed, been together for thirty years. They’re involved in the PTA, and they volunteer for charities. They attend church every Sunday, visit their relatives. They took care of their elderly parents and are in every way good, decent, hard-working taxpayers, neighbors, and caring friends. Look how their lives differ from yours at various points and in various situations, simply because we are denied the right to marriage.

One. If Mary is rushed to the hospital while she is out of state, let’s say, they could deny Susan the right to see her in the hospital, to hold her hand, to comfort her, to make medical decisions for her. All because we’re denied the right to marriage. How can that benefit society?

Because we’re denied marriage, Susan is denied access to the Family Medical Leave Act. She doesn’t have the right to take time off from work to care for her terminally ill partner, or the sick child that she parents. That hurts the child. It hurts the kids. It hurts the family. How does that benefit society?

Because we’re denied the right to marriage, Susan can be denied the right to make burial decisions, or to receive bereavement leave to attend Mary’s funeral. The legal next of kin has the right to remove Mary’s body, ship it back to Idaho where Mary never wanted to ever return again in order to be buried. And Susan would have no say whatsoever. That hurts their children. That hurts their family. How does that benefit society?

Move from the heart and take a look at the pure, crass economics. Go back twenty years in their lives. Because we’re denied marriage, Susan’s employer won’t pay for Mary’s health insurance or for the health insurance for their two children, since Mary is the biological mom. If they were straight, the employer would pay for their health insurance for all of them, even if the two kids were from previous marriages. They’ll have to purchase health insurance to cover Mary and the two kids at a cost of perhaps something on the order of ten-thousand dollars a year. And over the course of a normal lifetime that adds up to two-hundred thousand dollars. That’s the kids’ college tuition. That hurts the children. That hurts their family. How could that possibly benefit society?

Because we can’t marry, Susan will not receive a dime from Mary’s pension plan when she passes away. She will not receive a dime from her social security or Medicare benefits from all the years that Mary paid into Social Security like everyone else. And as a result, when Mary dies Susan will slip quietly into poverty. How does that benefit society?

Because we’re denied marriage over the course of an average lifetime, the loss of Social Security and Medicare alone will cost the average working-class family at least a hundred-thousand dollars. It could easily mean the difference between living in poverty or having enough food on the table to eat. How does encouraging poverty in old age benefit society?

Because we’re denied marriage, when Mary dies Susan will have to pay so many taxes on the home they share, unlike if they were married, that she might be no longer able to afford to live there. Or, if they were renters, Susan might not be allowed to continue to live in the rent-controlled apartment they’ve shared for thirty years. How does forcing Susan out onto the street from the home that they rented or rehabbed or built or bought together, how does that benefit society?

And so all of this is just a snapshot of some of the rights and benefits that same-sex couples lose when we are denied marriage. Children are harmed, our families are harmed, our lives are harmed. How can any good, decent, caring person wish that on another? Worse still, straight married couples don’t suffer from this parade of horribles even if they are themselves horrible people in horrible relationships. The benefits and rights of marriage aren’t bestowed on straight people based on their decency, after all. In fact, the husband could be a wife abuser, a child molester, a thief, a murderer. He could be divorced five times or be in prison. It could be a loveless, arranged marriage, or a marriage where one of them only got into it for the money. It could be a marriage which is one day old. Under any of these circumstances, where a rotten man or woman in a rotten relationship is entitled to receive more benefits and rights after being married for one day, or thirty days, or thirty years, than a caring, decent, compassionate, committed same-sex couple who have been together for thirty years. How can that be justified? How can that be right? How does that possibly benefit society?

And so when you say that you wish to deny us the right to marry, do you mean – you must answer – do you mean you wish to deny us these simple decencies that children and families need in times of crisis, stress, emergency and grief? If not, then just what is it that you wish to deny us? If so, then why would you deny us these fundamental rights and benefits? Why would you choose to harm our children and families in this way, just because you don’t approve of us?

Think of us what you will. Believe us to be sinners, sinful, ungodly creatures. Think whatever you want, it’s your prerogative. I’ll respect and defend your right to think what you will, though I’ll wish of course that you don’t think those ways. But you have no right to impose your prejudices, your biases, your discomfort, your beliefs on my legal rights. [audience applause]

  [Contents] [About the Participants] [Opening Statement by Arline Isaacson] [Opening Statement by John Rankin][Dialog] [Questions from the Audience] [Closing Statements]
[Return to Mars Hill Forum]