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.
 

 
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Where Is the Gay Ghetto Today?

 

I was looking through a 1982 book (yes, that's a while ago) by Dennis Altman called The Homosexualization of America, which discusses the birth and development of a specific “gay culture,” tying it into developments in the 1960s and 1970s such as the women's movement and the marketing of sex in popular culture.

This description of a typical gay neighborhood from that period really got me thinking, especially from a twenty-first century perspective: 

“Such areas are marked by a certain sameness: they seem at first to be populated almost entirely by men under the age of forty-five, dressed in a uniform and carefully calculated style and dedicated to a hedonistic and high-consumption lifestyle. The main streets of what are often termed the ghettos—Christopher Street and Columbus Avenue in New York, North Wells in Chicago, Castro and Polk in San Francisco, Santa Monica Boulevard in Los Angeles—are lined with shops selling high-camp postcards, coffee pots, pillowcases, T-shirts, and even food (in the ice cream parlors and “Erotic Bakeries”), with dim noisy, and smoke-filled bars, and with the new-style gay restaurants, full of potted palms, with large front windows and health-food menus.” 

 

1970s Chicago


Now, specifically from a Chicago context, North Wells is no longer a gay area (and hasn't been for some time), and Boystown on Halsted Street, though it does conform to some of the description above, seems to be watering down its wild gay nightlife image. Both areas have been solidly gentrified (think strollers, tourists, and sports bars) for some time now. In fact, many gays, having been priced out of these areas, have moved north to less expensive areas like Rogers Park, or, in the wake of increased social approval, moved to the suburbs where many of the jobs have gone and to raise their own families. 
 

Halsted Street, Chicago

 


 

 

 

But what gets me thinking even more deeply (after laughing at the visual in the quote above of “potted palms”) is the queston of whether physical geography really does matter anymore when we are thinking of a gay neighborhood or even a gay culture.

 

After all, it's obvious that connections via the Internet and social media can easily transcend physical limitations and socioeconomic boundaries. A gay guy living on a farm in a “red state” area might of course want to visit a gay-friendly urban area in a “blue state,” but if he's got Internet connectivity, he wouldn't feel as isolated. And urban gays are at at point now, where instead of hanging out at bars or cruising bathrooms, they can hook up instantaneously via Grindr. The “hedonism” Altman observed can end up becoming “virtual” rather than real! 

It's ironic though, as members of the LGBT community are trying to jump through (and quite successfully) one of the last social hurdles in their journey toward full acceptance as equal citizens, same-sex marriage, that face-to-face interaction seems to be an option, not a necessity. As what were once gay ghettos disappear, I do wonder if the very real and nitty-gritty sense of community which gave birth to Stonewall and banded together to confront the decimation of the AIDS crisis will disappear as well. 

 

1970s Chicago
 
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