I had a same sex female couple come in to my office to see my partner and I the other day. They had a beautiful little girl who was only a few weeks old. They live in New Jersey. Bear that in mind as I tell you the story, because, while this story’s facts might not be shocking in more backward thinking and ignorant parts of the United States, it is particularly shocking having taken place in New Jersey.
These ladies went to a pediatrician. Now, whether or not this pediatrician knew that this was a same sex couple is open to debate, but be that as it may, they made an appointment for the little one’s vaccinations.
When they went to the doctor’s office, the doctor asked them who the mom was, and then who the father was. The couple replied that there was no father, but that the baby had been conceived through artificial insemination, and the birth mom indicated that her same sex partner was the baby’s other parent.
Now, before I go on with the story, a brief moment for some background.
Last year, New Jersey appeared to have adopted a “Civil Union Law,” this in response to a decision by our Supreme Court which suggested that full rights of marriage must be available to same sex couples… all rights, that is, except the name ‘marriage.’ The decision opted instead to call such unions ‘Civil Unions’ and essentially directed the legislature to pass a law which enabled the decision.
This law was supposed to have finally dispensed with the many inequities, loopholes and other defects of the prior “Domestic Partnership Act,” which was essentially an abject failure. Not only did it not carry all the same rights as married couples had – only about 8% of those rights were protected in the Act – but it also overlooked the basic, human truth that words have power. The word ‘marriage’ was missing from the Act, and that enabled many ignorant people to treat Domestic Partners as less than marrieds, with all the bigotry that would entail.
So yes, indeed, the Civil Union Law was to finally equalize the field, grant all the same protections, and end the bigotry… but it still would not use the word marriage. Why? Why omit the word? Because aside from the irretrievably bigoted people on the one hand the advocates for equality on the other was this vast sea of people for whom this issue was not particularly important either way, but who were still ‘uncomfortable’ with the idea of using the word ‘marriage’ to describe a same sex relationship. So the ‘separate but equal’ inequity of the Civil Union Law would remain after all. Yet, it was hoped, things would still get better.
Now let’s return to the story.
My clients went and got ‘Civil Unioned’ (It doesn’t even flow grammatically, not like ‘married’), but, according to law, they still couldn’t use the word ‘married.’ Which, I suppose, made them less than spouses in the eyes of the state, and, as a result, in the eyes of this doctor.
When the doctor looked up in surprise that a second mother was indicated, she proceeded to treat my clients in an increasingly hostile and humiliating way, culminating in a crying baby (babies pick up these vibes), two very humiliated people, and an order to “get out of my office.”
My first thought when I spoke to these clients was that they were dealing with a “religious nut” doctor who was going to make some sort of biblical argument against same sex marriage and/or against the same sex orientation. The fact that there was a crying, presumably straight little baby girl at stake here would have made any such argument ridiculous – because any objection to the orientation of the mothers had nothing to do with the baby’s needs – but frankly, I don’t know whether or not the doctor had that as an issue.
What I do know is that this little episode teaches us a further lesson about the utter failure of New Jersey’s civil union law. Notice I no longer capitalize it. It doesn’t deserve capitals.
Using the word ‘marriage’ involves force and power, and carries with it thousands of uses in nearly every diverse culture on the planet. The word means something immediate, having only secondarily to do with gender. It carries with it an immediate appreciation of a life long commitment, of love, of desire to dwell with, support, and care for one another, and perhaps to raise a family. Say the word to someone from nearly anyplace, and any when, and these are the ideas that their definition of marriage involves.
Paradoxically, that might be one of the reasons why bigots, hate mongers and the ignorant are so steadfastly against the idea of using the word ‘marriage’ to describe a love relationship in a same sex people. Had these two women gone into the doctor’s office and proudly declared that they were married, then the doctor would have had to have understood that, as a matter of law, marriage implies automatic adoption and automatic parentage. The phrase ‘civil union,’ on the other hand, implies confusion and uncertainty, and provides exactly the kind of fertile ground for the ignorant to do what this particular doctor did.
It doesn’t matter if you are gay or straight, religious or not. What’s fair is fair. Don’t be satisfied with civil unions, because injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.