Saturday, March 30, 2013

The Personal Side of the Gay Marriage Debate

Her name was Sandy and every time I think of her, I feel heartbroken.

Sandy was a patient of mine more than a decade ago and I was fascinated the moment I met her. She was Native American and worked for the telephone company, climbing telephone poles, repairing lines. She had worked for the company for more than 30 years.

And she had been with her partner Corine for 22 years. She dreamed of marrying the woman she had loved so long and yearned for the time when gay marriage would be legal. Sandy and Corine had been through so much together: with Corine's growing disability from MS and the challenges of being a family in a world that largely considered them aberrant. But they were a loving family. Together, they had raised a daughter -- from Corine's brief marriage -- who grew up to be a successful businesswoman and a traditional suburban wife and mother of three young children.

Life was good until management changed and Sandy's new boss arrived. He was a righteous man who called himself a Christian. But he tormented Sandy about her masculine appearance, about being gay, and about being Native American. Nearing retirement, Sandy was reluctant to challenge her boss and kept her pain private. She began to suffer from stress and developed a rare stress-linked autoimmune disease that caused her body's mucous membranes to swell and blister. She was often in agony and put in her application to retire. After some opposition from management, her retirement was approved and the agreed upon date was set.

The last time I saw her, Sandy was ebullient. She talked of plans to move with Corine back to their native Arizona, to live on the reservation, close to the land, and in their Native American culture, in a close-knit community that welcomed them with love and with joy. She dreamed that someday she would be able to marry Corine legally and "we will throw a big party with friends and music and we will dance together at last as married partners!"

Sandy loved to dance -- expressing joy with a graceful little waltz across the floor of the therapy room. And, even as she danced her joy that day, she told me of her serious plans. She was going to take her retirement pension as a lump sum and transfer it to an IRA at her bank, making Corine the beneficiary. A look of pain crossed her face and she stopped dancing. "Would you believe the company won't recognize my partner of 22 years as a beneficiary if I leave it for them to administer?" she asked. "If anything were to happen to me, Corine couldn't get my pension -- like married heterosexuals can. That's why I'm taking a lump sum. So she'll be taken care of if the worst happens."

But the worst case scenario was quickly forgotten in the joy of the moment. In four days, Sandy would be officially retired. She danced out of the office and through the waiting room, greeting my next patient -- a sweet young preschool teacher and mother of two -- with excitement. "Michelle! It's happening! I'm going to retire next week!" Beaming, Michelle jumped up to give her a congratulatory hug and Sandy swept her into a graceful waltz around the waiting room.

It was the last time I saw her alive. Two days later, Sandy woke up choking, the mucous membranes in her throat swelling. She dashed to use the bathroom and dress quickly for a trip to the emergency room. Then Corine heard a crash. She found Sandy on the bathroom floor, struggling to breathe. She called 911 but the paramedics could do little. Sandy was dead on arrival at the hospital.

And Corine, as well as being devastated at the loss of her partner, never saw a dime of her pension or Social Security -- because she was not, after all, Sandy's legal spouse.

And Sandy and Corine's story is made more heartbreaking by the fact that there are so many similar stories. One of the gay people bringing a case now before the Supreme Court had lost her spouse of many years -- whom she had legally married in Canada -- and because the federal government and the IRS did not recognize gay marriage as legal, she was socked with a six-figure tax bill on her partner's estate. If she had been the wife of a man with similar assets, she would never have paid a dime.

As debate and controversy swirls around the pros and cons of gay marriage, I'm puzzled by the opposition to it. Yes, I know that many deeply religious people feel that homosexuality is a an aberrant choice, an abomination. And I respect their right to feel that way. But should it mean that a significant segment of the population should be denied equal rights?

It isn't that most of these people choose to be gay. They simply are gay. Some studies in genetics and neurology indicate that homosexual men and women may have subtle physiological differences linked to their sexual orientation. Should they be penalized for an inborn trait?

My husband suffers from epilepsy -- and there was a time when our marriage would have been impossible because epileptics were barred from marriage. We were lucky geographically when we married in 1977. As late as 1980, some states in the U.S. forbade epileptics to marry.

And there was a time  -- also not that long ago -- when interracial marriage was viewed with equal horror and far too many loving, committed couples were condemned to live in the shadows or, because of societal scorn or family pressures, to walk away from a treasured loved one. It wasn't until 1967 that anti-miscegenation laws were ruled unconstitutional in this country.

And, in the meantime, it has been perfectly legal for serial killers like Ted Bundy to marry and even father children while on Death Row.

It has been suggested that the dramatically changing public opinion on gay marriage -- with some 60% of Americans favoring equal marriage rights -- may be due to more gay men and lesbians coming out of the closet and more of us realizing that they are our friends and neighbors and family members. It's harder to stereotype and marginalize people we know and love.

It was a revelation, many years ago, when I held a man I loved and we both wept because we knew that being gay was not a choice for him. He was deeply religious and had wanted to marry and have a family, but was coming to the painful realization that his future would be quite different. And long before he celebrated who he was, he wept for the person he could never be.

It was a revelation, sometime later, as I got to know more and more gay and lesbian couples at work, in my suburban community and among circles of treasured friends and realized that their lives, their strengths and challenges as couples were not so different from our own.

It was a revelation when a former neighbor and dear friend who is gay and in a relationship spanning nearly 50 years called me to report that he had been besieged by a distant relative -- one of his few blood relatives still alive -- with whom he has never been close. She demanded that she be put on the title of his house and told him this made sense because "I'm your closest relative and your primary heir." She dismissed his partner of five decades as "your silly boyfriend." And he told me he was filled with hurt and anger and fear that this relative might compound the grief of his loss for the man he loved with outrageous claims on their shared fortune.

It was a revelation when my dear friend Tim greeted the news of his own son Stephen's coming out as gay with "I just hope he finds someone wonderful to love." And when Stephen and Devin, his partner of some years, married last year in New York, Tim was there to toast them. The picture of his tearful and loving tribute to his son and son-in-law, whom he calls simply "my son", is one of my all-time favorites.

And it was a revelation, as a psychotherapist, to see so many heterosexual marriages so quickly abandoned at the first signs of strain and, at the same time, so many loving and committed gay couples who weathered so much societal and familial disapproval through their years together and were still so stedfast in their love and devotion for each other. Among these special couples, Sandy and Corine stand out in my memory.

When one sees the reality of loving, committed relationships between same sex couples that could be an example to many heterosexual couples, judgments and reinforcing the status quo of marriage inequality just don't make sense.

For people who fear that allowing equal marriage rights for gays would somehow damage and undermine marriage, how about the 50% or so of heterosexual marriages that end in divorce? What about the impulsive or sham marriages of celebrities like Brittney Spears and her infamous 24 hour marriage to a childhood friend or Kim Kardashian and her million-dollar wedding and marriage that almost immediately hit the rocks? How about Bridezillas who focus relentlessly on the wedding and not at all on what it really means to be a partner? All of these could learn a great deal from some gay couples who have been stedfast in their love and devotion without the legal protections and privileges afforded the rest of us -- and too often abused.

For those who think that childless marriages would take us down an impossibly slippery slope, what about those of us who are heterosexual and childless -- by choice or because of infertility? Are our marriages less valid? And not all gay marriages are childless. Here in Arizona, two gay men are foster and adoptive parents to a dozen special needs children whom no one else wanted. They have been honored widely as exemplary parents. Many gay parents choose to have children with the help of sperm banks or surrogates. And some, like Sandy and Corine, raise children that one or both have had in previous heterosexual relationships. By all reports so far, children raised by gay parents are just as normal in all ways as children raised in traditional families.

Perhaps instead of worrying that someone else's choice of a mate will undermine the institution of marriage, we need to look within ourselves and our own relationships and ask what we can do to keep our own marriages strong and loving, setting an example for our children and grandchildren.

Marriage equality isn't some gracious gift we might -- or might not -- bestow on gay couples. It's something they should have had all along -- equal protection under the law, equal rights as citizens and taxpayers.

The issue is, nevertheless, highly controversial and emotional with strong feelings on both sides that need to be heard and respected. But one can only hope that the Supreme Court will make a decision that is wise and fair.

And when I dream this dream, I imagine Sandy somewhere dancing with joy that other gay couples might have the rights and protections that she and Corine did not live to enjoy.


  1. I couldn't agree with you more! For me, accepting the idea was not easy, but in time, I did, and so will many others.
    Thanks for such a beautiful post, Kathy.

  2. Well done, Kathy, well done! You have put into words so eloquently what many of us believe. I weep for those everywhere who are excluded from the rights others take for granted. It is so very unfair. But change will come; I am hopeful.

  3. Dear Kathy, thank you for speaking so eloquently about what has been such a tragic denial of human goodness for centuries. For three years in the late 80s, I volunteered at an AIDS clinic and met many gay men. That led to my reading about homosexuality and I believe so firmly that men and women are born either gay or heterosexual. Being one or the other is not a choice, it is a birthright.

    Your following brief statement sums up exactly where I stand today on this: "Marriage equality isn't some gracious gift we might -- or might not -- bestow on gay couples. It's something they should have had all along -- equal protection under the law, equal rights as citizens and taxpayers."


  4. Spot on, Kathy. It seems as though I've known gay men since college when I was a theatre major. I don't think it's a stereotype to say gay men were drawn to that field -- it was a place they could be safe -- and back in the late '60s/'70s, a lot of them had been acting all their lives. Yes, safe -- till the AIDS epidemic in the 80s took a lot of them out.

    But the whole idea of marriage and life-partnership never really hit me until about five years ago -- or maybe more -- when a little girl I had seen grow up and marry realized she had made the wrong choice and after several years of denying her sexual orientation, divorced and has since had the most glorious committed relationship with her female partner. They long for the day marriage is legal in Michigan, as do our male friends whose adopted son is not only the light of their lives but of so many others.

    They aren't the only couples I know who are gay and committed but they are the most exemplary for being not only committed to themselves but key players in revitalizing our community, our neighborhoods and our arts. I've rarely seen anyone so happy.

    In all the Facebook posting over the past few days, one post stood out among the rest. It was by a young woman I worked with professionally at another unit on our campus. She's about 30 or 35, which makes the most difference when you think back on the timetable. Her post credited her two moms and how they were amazing parents whose own relationship was indeed solid and strong. She spoke of how one would not be able to inherit without excessive taxing from the other. And that was simply wrong. Judging from the comments, it was the first time many in her circle had known this. Every word written was in support and she wrote back, gratefully, that she was going to share this with her parents this Easter -- it would mean so much.

    I don't know what the Supreme Court will do. But I know what it should. Thanks for stating this all so beautifully.

  5. This is so beautifully written. I do believe that our laws will change. It is the stories of real people that are changing public opinion. When we see the issue from a personal perspective it is difficult to argue that anything less than full equality is appropriate. Great job!

  6. Per usual you have hit all the nails right on the head. It is quite heartening today that the majority of Americans favor gay marriage. We have come a long way. I hope we take that next step so there will be no more heartbreaking stories like Sandy and Corine's.

  7. Kathy, thanks so much for putting into such eloquent words what I and so many others believe. I couldn't agree more with what you have written, as I too have seen same-sex relationships which put to shame many of the heterosexual marriages I know and yet they cannot marry.

    At least in the UK same-sex couples now have civil partnerships, which carry with them almost all the legal rights which marriage brings, including the right to inherit, to have pensions from their partner and to be the one called on to make decisions for their sick or dying partner. I do pray that your Supreme Court will soon grant the same rights to gays and lesbians in the USA.

  8. People are beginning to change their minds (evolving) about homosexuality... I think our country will 'accept' it legally soon--since our country is becoming more and more secular..

    I have mixed feelings since I am a Christian and believe that marriage is between a man and a woman. However, I am not at all against the gay lifestyle and want them to have all of the legal rights that all of us have. I just wish they could get all that they want and need without using the word, 'marriage'... But--maybe I just need to 'evolve' more and accept it.

    I do know several gays (and I like them). --and know how much they struggle. BUT--many of us who are different STRUGGLE in other ways. I struggled most of my adult life with obesity. Talk about being discriminated against! And ---most of us have stories of how we are different and how we have struggled. Life isn't easy --and I guess the word is acceptance..

    Thanks for a beautiful post today.

  9. This a beautifully written thoughtful post. Thanks for sharing your personal story and thoughts about this topic.

  10. Were you outspoken about gay equality in marriage during the decade she was your patient? Were you known for your views on gay rights when you held and wept with your patient? Or were you silent like so many people were ten or twenty years ago? Being a therapist you surely know about the 'bandwagon effect'. It isn't courageous to share your views when you sense that the groundswell is moving in your favor. The courageous ones were those who were outspoken about it before it became trendy.

  11. Great spot on post - thank you!

  12. I live in CA who voted against gay marriage (which still shocks me) but I see the tide turning and I hope the next time it's on the ballot it will pass. I'm anxious to see how the Supreme Court rules on this issue too. It all leaves me shaking my head.
    Well said Kathy. Thank you.

  13. Thanks for all your comments! I appreciate each and every one.

    An aside to "Anonymous"" yes, I have been active and outspoken in gay rights since the late 70's, writing, volunteering and marching in events in support of gay rights since then. With my patients, whatever their sexual orientation, I have always concentrated on making the therapy room a safe place for them to be themselves. And because of that, and referrals from patients, I always had a good percentage of gay patients -- and advertised my practice as gay-friendly. Having been involved long before being gay was nearly as accepted as it is now, I'm am delighted to see gay rights becoming "trendy" as you say.

  14. I find myself unable to decide which way I vote on this.

  15. Well said. Amazingly some thirty years ago in Minnesota the state required a class on "diversity" to recertify your teaching liscense. There was much grumbling among some of my collegues. We met Native Americans, Blacks, homosexuals, handicapped, etc. on a weekly basis. I think this was before "outing" or "comming out" was common. I had no problem with the subject then and still don't. And am glad that public acceptance has changed so much...

  16. This is a well written and thoughtful look into the pain and joys of the gay community. Bob and I both have members of our families who are gay. My cousin faced many difficulties in the 50s and 60s. Bob's niece has fared somewhat better in the present time but still unable to have a legal marriage.
    While I cannot fathom they sexual behaviors I do understand and respect their abilities and desires to be in a loving relationship. As with heterosexual couples their sex life is certainly NONE of my business or concern. I do believe they have a right to all the legal rights and protections afforded to current married couples.
    I have gay friends and acquaintances some of whom I love dearly. They all deserve our love and respect as brothers and sisters on this earthly journey.
    You are always center target. I appreciate your insight.