26 June 2013

The Big No-Brainer

A few brief (I hope) words about today's Supreme Court decision regarding the unconstitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act.

It has seemed obvious to me from the beginning of the debate on this matter, all those years ago, that a federal law (1) allowing states not to recognize the valid marriage laws of other states and (2) denying federal benefits to a discrete group of people based on an immutable characteristic, e.g., sexual orientation, was clearly unconstitutional.

(1) The Full Faith and Credit clause of the U.S. Constitution requires each state to respect the others' laws. Thus, my husband and I were married in New York City, but when we bought a house jointly in New Jersey the following year, we didn't have to get married again. Our marriage followed us across the border, as of course it should. New Jersey must (and does) recognize a valid marriage solemnized in New York.

(2) Sexual orientation is an immutable characteristic - one that can't be changed by choice. I was born with brown eyes. I can wear colored contact lenses to make myself look blue-eyed, but that would be a temporary mask of my true genetic makeup. I got my dad's brown eyes, and there's nothing I can do about it. (Or want to do about it, actually.) Homosexuals have been discriminated against for millenia - if it were a choice, why would someone choose to belong to a group so reviled throughout history?

Just as Congress can't single out brown-eyed people and deny them tax exemptions, they can't single out gay people and deny them benefits and rights to which everyone else is entitled.

And a quick few words about marriage. Marriage means many things to many people. We are not talking here about the Catholic Church's definition of marriage, which is a narrow one. Their marriage is a holy sacrament performed by an ordained priest in a church, uniting a man to a woman for as long as they both continue to be alive. They (and many other conservative groups) don't formally recognize anything else as marriage.

But, of course, our Catholic friends don't claim that my husband and I, who were married in the Episcopal Church, aren't really married. Or that our Jewish friends who've been married for decades in their own tradition are somehow living in sin.  That's because marriage is often a religious rite, but it is also something else. It is a civil contract, entered into by two people, which demonstrates their commitment to each other for life. It is about love, usually, but it is also about economics. Married people can open joint bank accounts, buy houses jointly with right of survivorship, inherit each other's estates free of taxes, adopt children together as a unit, and visit each other in the hospital at all hours. I don't think anyone would seriously challenge my right to own a house jointly with my husband because I wasn't married in their religious tradition.

When you get married in a religious ceremony in most states in the U.S., you also have to get a civil marriage license, and your officiant, licensed to perform marriages by the state, signs that in addition to your religious certificate. If your officiant isn't duly licensed in the jurisdiction in which you throw your party, you need to get married separately by the state in order for it to be legal. Everyone who has ever gotten married in the United States, or performed a marriage here, knows this.

Marriage is a universally-recognized legal status. You can be considered legally married, and enjoy all the legal benefits of that relationship, even if you never set foot in a house of worship. Lots of people do it every day.

And - this will come as a surprise to a lot of young people and unmarried people that I know - but marriage is not primarily about sex. I mean, after the first few weeks, of course. It is about teamwork and companionship, and running a household. It is about daily life that was once Separate and is now Together. It sometimes becomes about raising children, but even if there are no children, there's still a whole lot of "which movie do you want to see" and "what should we have for dinner" and "I don't think we can afford to get the stove fixed this week." There are finances and negotiations and doing things you don't want to do because they're important to your spouse. It's about loyalty and commitment and meeting each other halfway.

And if someone loves someone of the same gender so much that they want to make that commitment and live that life, and be there for each other, and if a state says they can, then the federal government can't say they can't.

A friend recently told me that he thinks homosexuality is "unnatural" and "spreads disease" and therefore should not be condoned in any form by the state. I didn't remind him that the "disease" of which he was thinking, and many more, are also spread by heterosexual contact, and that marriage of any sort that involves an exclusive physical commitment actually reduces the chances of catching and spreading anything that's sexually transmitted. Because when people make up their mind that they're against something on religious grounds, there's no convincing them that they're wrong. In fact, they're entitled to their religious beliefs. They're just not entitled to discriminate civilly because of those beliefs.

So I applaud today's decision, which seems to me to have been a no-brainer. It does not, of course, seem that way to everyone, including four members of the Court itself. But neither did interracial marriage, a generation ago, seem to be a no-brainer, and I think the analysis is the same.

The world is not going to crumble to pieces because a woman who inherited her wife's estate can now claim an exemption from estate taxes. No one will be forced to marry someone they don't want to marry, and no religious institution will be forced to perform marriages it doesn't want to perform. But some people will be entitled to live in peace with the person of their choice, to make a life and a home together, and to enjoy the civil benefits of that life.

And if someone's life can be improved, I'm in favor of it.

24 June 2013

Advice for the College-Bound

Well, it's late June, folks, and you haven't heard from me since Mother's Day. But things have been busy around here. For one thing, I have a high school graduate among my children now. If you have been following this blog for a while, you know something of her academic struggles and triumphs. I won't bore you with the soppy mom stuff, but I will tell you that when my husband and I opened the graduation program and saw her name listed among the graduates receiving "high honors," we were thrilled beyond any joy I have felt since the days when she, her sister, and her brother were born.

Hats off to you, Sarah. You've come a long way, and you still have a long way to go.

She's off to college now. Her cousin David, a recent college graduate, gave her a graduation card in which he listed some wonderful college-bound advice: "Things I Wish I'd Known." Attend classes and pay attention. Get involved in campus activities. Leave your dorm room door open all the time, unless you have a good reason to close it. Spend time with your college friends - they are likely to be your friends for life, but the time you have with them, young, single, and carefree, is probably limited to four short years, and those years will go quickly.

I have a few things to add to David's list. I've been thinking these over, mulling them around in my head, since I recently attended my 25th college reunion. (More on that, maybe, in a later post.) Here are my thoughts for Sarah and her friends, as they embark on their new adventures.

1. Get to know your professors. Do not be intimidated by them. Ask them questions, and interact with them as much as you can. They are experts in their fields, and they know a great deal about things you want to know about. They are there to teach you, and you are there to learn.

2. Take a wide variety of classes. Don't box yourself in too early. Sure, if you're pre-med or an engineer, you'll have requirements to fulfill, but branch out as much as you can. You might discover a new field that you love.

3. Do not listen to people who ask what you're majoring in and then, with eyebrows raised, ask, "How are you going to make a living at THAT?" If you major in something you love and then pursue it after school, you'll be doing something you love for a living. In no time at all, you'll be far ahead of 90% of the eyebrow-raisers.

4. Your classmates are part of your education. Try to make friends who are different from you. Chances are that people have come from all over to study at your college. Don't hang out exclusively with people of your own ethnic, religious, or socioeconomic background.

5. If you experience academic trouble at any point, seek help right away. Go to the professor first, and then to the academic support center if necessary (every school has one). Do not sit alone in the dark and think you can muddle through on your own. You will not be the first person ever to seek help. There are many people who will be more than happy to help you.

6. Take risks and chances. Not the jumping-off-the-bridge type, but the studying-abroad and taking-a-part-time-job type. Some of these opportunities will give you wonderful experiences and will never arise again in your lifetime.

7. Come home at the holidays. If you have a friend who is too far from home to get back to his or her family, bring him or her along. There's always room for one more.

8. Take good care of yourself physically. The temptation to party hard and get no sleep will always be there, but remember that you are not doing yourself a favor by abusing your body. Eat well and stay active, and keep the, um, indulgences to a minimum.

9. Take advantage of whatever your school has to offer. A great art museum? A famous computer center? A world-renowned Hemingway expert? Political debates? Whatever it is, show up from time to time and see what it's about.

10. Finally, remember that a lot of love and effort has gone into getting you safely from the bassinet to the dorm room. Your safety is out of our hands now and entirely in yours. Honor us by being careful. Use your good judgment at all times. Travel in (sober) groups, especially at night. Follow your gut instincts, which are usually right.

Do you have more advice for Sarah and her classmates? I'd love to hear it.