Tag Archives: equal rights

What Governor Christie Doesn’t Get

Yesterday, the New Jersey Senate voted to recognize same-sex marriage. Indications are that the Assembly (the lower house) will do likewise. Meanwhile, an equal-protection lawsuit is working its way through the New Jersey courts; it would be mooted by this legislation.

Governor Christie has vowed to veto the measure–no surprise. But his professed reason means he is either dishonest or constitutionally ignorant.

Christie says he’ll veto the bill because so important a matter should be subjected to popular vote.

In the United States, we don’t get to vote on other people’s rights. The whole reason for the Bill of Rights was to protect minorities–not just members of different races or religions but people with unpopular ideas or different ‘lifestyles’–from unequal treatment by the government even when a majority of citizens wanted government to treat those minorities unequally. The Bill of Rights is what we call a “counter-majoritarian” instrument; it protects our individual rights against the passions and prejudices of the majority.

Perhaps Governor Christie should consult the famous explanation by Justice Jackson in West Virginia Board of Education v. Barnett. 

The very purpose of a Bill of Rights was to withdraw certain subjects from the vicissitudes of political controversy, to place them beyond the reach of majorities and officials, and to establish them as legal principles to be applied by the courts. One’s right to life, liberty, and property, to free speech, a free press, freedom of worship and assembly, and other fundamental rights may not be submitted to vote; they depend on the outcome of no elections.

(Of course, in a consistent world, this principle would also apply to state legislatures. No one would get to vote on whether another citizen was entitled to equal rights. But in case it has escaped notice, this is not a consistent world. In any event, as my mother used to say, two wrongs don’t make a right.)

I don’t get to vote on the Governor’s rights, and he doesn’t get to vote on mine. If the legislature doesn’t override his threatened veto, the courts eventually will. That’s not “judicial activism.” It’s application of a bedrock constitutional principle.

I Cry At Weddings

I cry at weddings, and last week I had yet another opportunity to borrow a tissue.

I was invited to this particular ceremony by someone I have come to know through service on a nonprofit board. He’s the sort of quiet, solid citizen that others depend on, the guy down the street who works hard, who harbors zero political ambitions despite serving a couple of terms on his township’s school board, the guy whose neighbors know they can call on him in a pinch.

There wasn’t a large crowd at the church—the couple’s families (including my friend’s children by a prior marriage), folks from the neighborhood where they have lived for twelve years, others they’ve met through a variety of civic organizations. It was probably as racially diverse a group as I’ve seen in a church, perhaps because this particular couple is interracial. The crowd was not only black and white, however; among the people I knew, I saw Christians and Jews, Republicans and Democrats, gay and straight, young and old.

During the brief ceremony, there were readings from members of both families, including my friend’s children from the prior marriage. One of his daughters (the mother of his adored grandson) is deaf, so she signed her part, which was lovely and touching. I didn’t really tear up, however, until the part where the couple left the altar to present each of their mothers with flowers and express their gratitude for the years of love and support. (Hey, what can I tell you—I’m a mom too!)

Finally, after rings were exchanged and the ceremony concluded, the grooms invited everyone to join them at the reception.

Oh yes—I forgot to mention that this wasn’t a legally-binding marriage. It was a commitment ceremony. Although it was otherwise indistinguishable from other Christian wedding ceremonies I’ve attended, my friend and his life partner walked out of church still strangers in the eyes of the law. Although they have lived together for 12 years, although they publicly declared their intent to live together for the rest of their lives, although they have the love and support of their families, although they are law-abiding, taxpaying citizens, they won’t be filing joint tax returns.

Their relationship won’t entitle them to the 1012 legal incidents of marriage that my husband and I automatically enjoy—“special rights” like social security survivor benefits, hospital visitation, automatic joint ownership of the home they’ve shared, an automatic right to inherit property that they’ve jointly acquired, and on and on. For my friend and his partner, securing these rights requires copious and expensive legal documentation.

As if this denial of equal treatment isn’t galling enough, the Indiana Legislature is once again trying to rub salt in the wound of second-class citizenship by passing a constitutional amendment to confirm that status—and arguably prevent passage of any other legal recognition, including civil unions. If HJR 6 passes, it will send a strong signal that gay people are not welcome in Indiana.

One of the other people at the commitment ceremony was a woman I hadn’t seen since my days in City Hall, during the Hudnut Administration.  She is a very conservative Republican, and I was surprised to see her there. She explained that she had met our mutual friend through their joint service on a nonprofit board. Then she added something well worth pondering: “I consider myself a strong social conservative, but for the life of me, I can’t understand why same-sex marriage threatens my marriage or hurts anyone.”

I don’t understand that either. That’s one reason I cry at weddings.


Grow Old Along With Me…

When my son first came out, I vividly remember my reaction: he will grow old with no one to care for him—no children or spouse to be there for him. He will be alone.

It made me incredibly sad.

In the years since, I’ve recognized that even though “Mr. Picky” has no partner, he has a huge “family of choice.” He is a very social being, and he has an enormous circle of very good friends. And of course, he has his brothers and sisters, not to mention the nieces and nephews who adore him.

And yet.

A good friend of mine committed suicide this year. He too had many friends—although honesty compels me to acknowledge that he was more guarded, more private, than my son. Still, I couldn’t help thinking: he didn’t have a significant other, he didn’t have anyone truly close to whom he could turn in moments of despair. What if….??

Which brings me to a recent study conducted by a whole raft of very impressive organizations—the LGBT Movement Advancement Project, SAGE (Seniors and Advocates for Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Elders), the American Society on Aging, the Center for American Progress, and the National Senior Citizens Law Center. The study confirmed (as so many do) something we all instinctively know:  LGBT seniors face unique challenges that make successful aging much more difficult for them than it is for those of us who are heterosexual. (And let me assure you, as a woman aging far more rapidly than I am comfortable with, it isn’t all that easy for us heteros.)

The study found that the effects of social stigma and prejudices—past and present—have made it much more difficult for members of the LGBT community to save for retirement. It also found that the need to rely on “families of choice” for care and support made the availability of that care and support far more “iffy.” (Granted, the report didn’t use terminology like “iffy,” but that was what it meant.)

More important by far, LGBT seniors face continued unequal treatment under the law. Rules surrounding everything from hospital visits to inheritance rights elevate the legal status of blood relatives over long-term partners, even in cases where those “blood” relatives have disowned, belittled, demeaned and disparaged the individual involved. Take just one example: Medicaid, the largest funder by far of long-term care, has spousal impoverishment protections that simply do not apply to GLBT unions. The result is that the healthy partner in such unions may be left homeless and/or penniless. The study notes that the lack of spousal benefits in Social Security can cost an elderly LGBT person as much as $14,000 a year. Tax-qualified retirement plans have punitive rules that don’t apply to heterosexual couples. And that same disparity applies to employment pensions, health insurance benefits for retirees, estate and inheritance taxes, and even veterans’ benefits.

These inequities are the result of a society that has stubbornly resisted applying the principal of equal protection of the law to gay and lesbian people.

Right now, many in the gay community are focused upon issues like Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, and same-sex marriage. Those are very important issues—especially marriage, the recognition of which would go a long way toward ameliorating the gross unfairness this study documents. But sometimes it is a good idea to take the long view—to stand back and recognize the lifetime effects of the unfair, unequal and prejudicial legal environment we inhabit.

My son has assured me that he does not entertain suicidal impulses, and that he appreciates and values both his blood family and his large, extended “family of choice.” And I know he is sincere. I know he is loved—and I know that he knows it too.  And he is still young; he may yet find someone who meets his exacting specifications.

But I’d feel a lot better if we had a fairer legal system, and a fairer society, for him to grow old in.