Honoring Edie Windsor Is Honoring Every Person

 
Edie Windsor

I was saddened to learn of the death of Edie Windsor, an LGBTQ senior who made a difference in the world in her golden years through what seems like on the surface a lawsuit based a financial issue: she did not want to pay the onerous tax on the estate of her late life-partner (later wife; they married in Canada), Thea Spyer, because, according to the laws of our nation, Edie and Thea were not “of kin,” that is, legally married at the federal level. Edie sued and won, and her action paved the way for the Obergefell decision which claimed that not allowing same-sex couples to get married was at one level unconstitutional, depriving them of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” and, and on a deeper level, as Justice Kennedy aptly and profoundly put, deprived them of “human dignity.” 

Text from Justice Kennedy's ruling
I am going to throw in another word, “honor,” to Justice Kennedy’s words, which gets tossed around quite often, usually in the context of customs like honor killings, and often becomes a byword for the worst excesses of patriarchal oppression (such as throwing out a LGBTQ person out of the home because her orientation somehow dishonors the family unit). We tend to use the word more as a verb, usually in the context of showing respect for the dead, or honoring one’s elders, one of the Ten Commandments. But as a noun, we don’t use it that much in a positive way in many social contexts, and we don’t get terribly specific. 

There’s much more to the word, so much more. Orlando Patterson in his book Slavery and Social Death makes the claim that the masters as a means of social control will take away the honor of their slaves; in fact, one could even claim that they only way they can maintain their honor as masters is by taking away the honor of others. 

Quote from Slavery and Social Death
A person’s honor, I would claim, is the respect of the entire person, not just as an individual, but as a social being with a right not only to basic necessities like food, health care, and shelter, but a right to share equally in what makes the society not just stable on a political and economic level, but worthy of respect on a psychosocial and spiritual level. The person possesses access to all levels of Maslow’s triangle of self-actualization, but the self ultimately thrives in interaction with others. 

Justice Kennedy implicitly acknowledged that marriage (and it doesn’t have to be an overtly religious institution) is an honorable institution; to partake of it is to enjoy honor, not just of the person one loves and commits to (as traditional vows say, “love, honor;” the verbs are tightly connected) but of all aspects of the couple’s social being. In the American South, slaves had to ask permission from their masters to be married, and in many cases slave marriages were not recognized legally. A couple and their children could be sold apart. The masters essentially killed the slaves on a social level, not only because of the breaking apart of families, but even taking away their original names. 

To take away or forcibly change someone’s name is to take away the person’s honor at the deepest level. It reduces someone to the level of an “other,” and “object,” a “function.” When I worked at a law firm, one lawyer referred to paying the support staff as like paying for “lights and desks.” The current administration has made dishonoring persons (and the environment) its mission, for example, by deleting the category of LGBTQ persons from various government surveys and documents. Our society in general dishonors its elders by essentially storing them away in nursing homes, separating them from the family unit, potentially exposing them to dishonor and shame by violating their basic privacy (which I take to mean one’s autonomy) and depriving them of social honor. 

Let’s honor Edie Windsor, an LGBTQ elder who refused to be dishonored, and in doing so, gave honor to many citizens of her country. Let’s also remember that a threat to one’s own honor is a threat to everyone’s honor as a whole, and that upholding one’s honor (I think of the holy haters who seem to think that honoring their religion means dishonoring LGBTQ people in the public square) does not necessarily mean dishonoring others. The Nazis murdered the Jews not only physically, but subjected them to an ongoing social death in the concentration camps. Our nation seems poised to do the same to immigrants, LGBTQ persons, Muslims, persons who are not white. I hope and pray Edie’s legacy of honor and love will live on. 

Edie Windsor and Thea Spyer
Edie Windsor and Thea Spyer
Rate this blog entry:
1454 Hits
0 Comments

The Real Benefit of Same-Sex Marriage: Human Dignity

The Real Benefit of Same-Sex Marriage: Human Dignity

 

This scenario is unfortunately all-too familiar: a gay man dies, and his partner ends up having to fight the “blood family” for property, a dwelling place, even a burial space. Unless a gay couple takes extraordinary, expensive legal measures, which in some cases means even adopting each other (see this link for a famous case), they are not legally protected, which protections and benefits would happen automatically if they were a heterosexual couple.
 

I know one person the above scenario happened to. He had to leave his dwelling of twenty-five years. His partner's homophobic family banned him from the funeral, and stole the burial plot. Why? He was not legally protected.

 

In another case, another friend of mine was much more fortunate. They lived in Florida, a state notorious for its homophobia (hello, Anita Bryant). Luckily, the partner's sister and brotherin-law were on good terms with him and followed his instructions about the sale of the house and other matters of the estate. Regardless of the financial situation, they respected the relationship. Their respect showed they saw my friend as a person, not an enemy “other” or an impersonal commodity.

The Edie Windsor case publicized and created much-needed discourse at the highest level the fundamental injustice of our defining only by gender civil marriage (yes, civil, not religious/sacramental). Edie would have had to pay an astronomical amount of inheritance tax on her wife's estate (yes, wife) because, as above, they were not a heterosexual couple. In response to this case, the Supreme Court struck down DOMA.

In other words, the civil society essentially treats those who do not fit heteronormative social structures as second-class citizens in a country which purports (and has failed and still fails to do) to operate under a claim that all people are created equal.

What I've said so far is not new, but I think it is really about not just the issue of same-sex couples being able to enjoy the economic, social, and psychological benefits of civil marriage, but about human dignity.

Human dignity transcends the physical ties of blood and the laws people make to be able to live together (which often results in people using each other as commodities, rather than persons). We experience human dignity by showing empathy and compassion for a person outside yourself, which means being able to find a piece, however difficult that may be, of that person in you, a process of growing, really becoming. To use the language of the famous Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, we need to enter into an I-Thou relationship, rather than an I-It one.
 

It's unfortunate that many of the benefits that those who enter into marriage are commodities (and in the past, remember, the wife [and the children] were essentially property of the husband), but I am hoping that we will get to the point that marriage equality is not just about a legal transaction. It's the recognition of the dignity of each human person as a complex, imperfect, non-binary becoming.
 

 
Rate this blog entry:
4281 Hits
0 Comments

Contact Us | 800-932-7111 | Join our email list

Go to top