When I consider the debate over same-gender marriage a thought comes to mind that isn’t usually part of the dialog: “Be careful what you wish for.”
First, let me say that I am a staunch advocate for full marriage equality for same-gender couples. According to pro-marriage equality organizations, such as the National Center for Lesbian Rights, civil marriage, at the federal level, provides for some 1,500 legal rights and responsibilities that are virtually ironclad and guaranteed with a $35 (or whatever the going rate) marriage license and an “I do.” The Full Faith and Credit clause (Article IV) of the U.S. Constitution guarantees that for heterosexual married couples those rights are consistent and transferable throughout the United States, regardless of where the marriage was performed. (Thanks to “DOMA,” the Defense of Marriage Act, married same-sex couples are exempted from the Full Faith and Credit clause.)
In contrast, the rights afforded by state-sanctioned Civil Unions number in the low-to-mid hundreds, while municipally-granted Domestic Partner benefits generally top out at no more than a couple of dozen. Further, neither Domestic Partnerships nor Civil Unions are recognized outside of their home jurisdictions.
Couples not covered by local, state or federal regulations can have certain documents drawn up to provide for limited protections, but the cost of these documents can range from several hundred to several thousand dollars, and unless carefully drafted they can be challenged and overturned by “legal” relatives.
The bottom line is that all couples should have equal access to all of the rights and responsibilities of federal civil marriage without having to incur exorbitant costs in securing those rights.
Ironically, during the “sexual revolution” of the 1960s and 1970s, the “rights” of marriage were of little interest to those denouncing the “rites” of marriage. The mantra of the day was, “We don’t need a piece of paper to prove our love.” And they were absolutely correct. When a relationship is basking in the first bloom of love there is no need for the legal protections that come with a marriage license. It’s only when the relationship is threatened, whether from without or within, that the legal ramifications of marriage become important.
When most of us think of marriage equality we tend to think primarily of the rights and privileges associated with legal marriage. As soon as that marriage license is signed and notarized, your spouse is your legal heir and next-of-kin. With the stroke of a pen your legal spouse moves to the head of the line, ahead of Mom and Dad, your brothers and sisters, and any other blood relatives.
But let’s take a look at the flip side—the “fine print,” if you will, of the marriage contract. Let’s look at a few of the responsibilities that come with legal marriage.
Credit. We’ve all seen those ads on TV where the guy is singing about knowing your credit score. Well, he’s telling the truth. When you marry the love of your life, you’re also marrying his or her credit score. Later, when you go looking to buy your little “dream home,” your partner’s poor credit history can mean you can’t get a loan, even if you can afford it on your own income. At the very least, it may bounce you into a considerably higher interest rate, costing you tens of thousands of dollars over the life of your mortgage. The same holds true for buying a new car.
Bills. When unmarried couples have bills, each partner is only legally responsible for his or her own expenses. Not so for marrieds. If lover boy is a shop-aholic who has more shoes than Imelda Marcos and whose favorite pastime is “acquisition therapy,” you may be left holding more than the shopping bags. Maybe a few hundred dollars at Macy’s isn’t a problem, but bills aren’t limited to shopping binges. Suppose your sweetie is hospitalized with a serious illness. As the legal spouse, you not only get hospital visitation rights, you are also responsible for the expenses not covered by insurance.
Fidelity. As sexual mavericks who cannot legally marry, gay people have often crafted their relationships on their own terms. Some opt for traditional monogamy, while others prefer something more “open,” where sex outside of the relationship is permitted. Still others may even have a more communal arrangement, with three or more people involved. When someone breaks the rules the relationship may end, but it’s usually not much more complicated than picking up the pieces and going their separate ways. With legal marriage, however, things become much more complicated. Tricking with that hot number down the street can cost a lot more than a broken heart. Divorce can be messy and expensive, and if the guilty party is the primary breadwinner or there is considerable disparity in income, he or she can even be required to pay alimony.
These are just a few of the responsibilities that come with legal marriage. Am I suggesting that gays should not marry? Not at all. What I’m saying is, be careful what you wish for. Marriage equality will eventually be the law of the land, but marriage is more than a fancy wedding and Happily Ever After. It is a legally binding contract that we should not take lightly or rush into, just because it’s suddenly available. Know what you’re getting into before you say, “I do.”