Gay Marriage Was Never Just About Tax Breaks
Recently, my favorite podcast touched on the topic of the debate within the LGBTQI* community about the prioritization of same-sex marriage (as opposed to trans rights, equal access to housing, etc). Both the host and the guest mentioned only the question of tax breaks as a motivator, with the context suggesting that tax breaks shouldn’t take precedent over issues of survival, like fair access to housing and employment.
I don’t disagree with that premise in the least: frankly, I could care less about tax breaks (and being married doesn’t automatically save you money on your taxes anyway). We definitely need to be more in-tune to issues like the dangers faced by trans people, and especially trans women of color, who are assaulted and murdered at staggeringly high rates just for trying to be themselves. As a community, those of us out here in Rainbowland definitely need to center the issues of those among us who are most vulnerable.
I’m sure that this was an unscripted oversight, and if the topic at hand had been “Let’s Talk About Same-Sex Marriage,” the million and fifteen much-more-important rights afforded by marriage would probably have come to light sooner or later.
But the fact that both the host’s and the guest’s first instinct was to frame the question of gay marriage as one of mere access to tax breaks reflects its own kind of privilege: one that has a lot to do with the one of the Great Divides in queer history, and a lot to do with being relatively young and healthy.
Because, for gay men and women of my husband’s generation, gay marriage has a lot more to do with death than it does with taxes.
Let me back up a little.
D and I are members of two distinct generations.
He was born in a Cold War world, at the peak of the space race, and grew up in the world of arcades, local media, snail mail, and telephone calls. I was born at the very tail end of the Cold War, when we’d already decided to kiss and make up and were basically just sorting out how to do it, and grew up in the world of in-home video game systems, global media, email, and increasingly-rapid telecommunication. In high school, he had the library and his local friends. I had the entire internet and more or less the entire world to chat with.
As D was coming of age, sex was a terrifying game of Russian Roulette: he remembers the time before we knew how HIV was transmitted. He was a young adult at the peak of the AIDS crisis.
As for me … although its confusing specter haunted my childhood and probably made me far more paranoid about sex than was entirely necessary, by the time I first heard about AIDS (from an NPR radio segment in my Dad’s car), we already knew how to prevent transmission and were starting to see effective treatments. As a young adult, I already lived in a world where AIDS was a fact of life—in essence, a particularly obnoxious lifelong chronic illness that could be managed with medication. Like, herpes on steroids, or something.
D is part of the generation that experienced the staggering pain of devoted couples being separated by hospital policies that allowed only legal family members visitation rights.
He is part of the generation that saw bereaved spouses ousted from their homes when the deceased’s family decided to seize the property of the deceased.
He is part of the generation for whom access to life-saving treatment that would’ve been covered by one partner’s benefits might not be covered by the other partner’s—a roadblock invisible to legally-married heterosexual couples. He is a part of a generation in which people literally died because they lacked the protections of legal marriage.
To gay men of his generation and the gay women who carried so very, very much of the burden with them in those dark days, tax breaks are the last and the least concern. I would say “icing on the cake,” but cake isn’t sustenance.
Knowing that your mate won’t be driven from the home you’ve built together after your death? That’s sustenance. Knowing that you can’t be cut off from death benefits simply because you’re gay? That’s sustenance. Knowing that you have legal protection that allows you to see your beloved in the hospital; to advocate for them; to make medical decisions on their behalf when they are incapacitated? That’s sustenance.
Coincidentally, it’s also access to safe housing. It’s also access to healthcare—on the private market, D and I bear less of a financial burden for one decent plan than for two poor plans. We have access to such a plan because we’re legally married. If it weren’t for that, we’d be scraping by with two separate iterations of the kind of health plan that only covers you in catastrophes.
Never mind certain other critical protections: spouses cannot be forced to testify against one-another, for example … unless they’re not legally married, in which case anything goes. Legal marriage can prevent one’s life-partner from being deported.
I’m not saying that any of this makes the other work that we’re doing as a community any less critical. But to frame same-sex marriage as a matter of a tax break is short-sighted. I hope nobody actually believes that was the prime mover, here.
For what it’s worth, legal marriage also serves the vulnerable.
It affords a path to safety for immigrants who arrive here on journeys of love, or who arrive here on other journeys and fall in love anyway.
It affords protection against post-mortem dead-naming by hostile families of deceased transfolk.
It prevents children of same-sex parents from being torn from their homes if one parent dies and homophobic family members (or legal systems) intervene.
It protects the devoted spouses of military members who are severely injured or killed in service.
My generation isn’t old enough for death to have touched many of us in the ways it touched D’s generation when they were our age, or younger than we are now. We mostly haven’t dealt much with death: most of us still have both our parents (and probably a step-parent or two as well) and will for many years. Many of us still have all our grandparents. Few of us have lost our spouses.
We might have been alive during the most harrowing days of the AIDS crisis, but if we were, we were children. We didn’t personally lose friends in staggering numbers or watch our friends suffer the agony of being barred from hospital visits. I have, in my lifetime, lost one friend to AIDS—a lovely guy a few years older than I am who committed suicide because he had contracted a strain of HIV that wasn’t responding to antiretroviral treatments and so forth. He chose to end his life before the complications of HIV could end it for him.
People Denis’ age lost dozens, sometimes hundreds, of friends, in a ground swell of bereavement complicated by discrimination against which no grounds for legal protection existed.
Death, for my generation, isn’t the visible specter that it has been for so very long, from such an early age, for the gay men and women of D’s generation. For them, it has been very real from the beginning of their adult lives, as have the potential repercussions associated with the lack of the legal protections afforded by marriage (and which efforts to secure by other means have not reliably secured).
I’m not saying that focusing on gay marriage, to the exclusion of other issues, was by any means the right path. I do think that, in many ways, it was low-hanging fruit: in an age when the US is far less uncomfortable with queer people in general, but fraught with racial tension and wildly unsure about transfolk, it was relatable. Marriage, as it were, will play in Peoria.
One thing it was not, though, not ever, was simply a tax break.
Either way, at this point, it’s a fait accompli, more or less. It could be undone, but it would be easier not to undo it. People who don’t believe in gay marriage can go on not getting gay-married all they like. They don’t even have to come to our weddings (amazingly, Rainbow Goons won’t show up at your door if you choose not to attend your lesbian cousin’s lesbian wedding, and in fact you’re not even legally obligated to feel guilty about it).
And now that we’re over that hurdle, maybe we can all agree to focus our efforts on the most vulnerable among us, and on making the queer world one that hears their voices, that sees and embraces them. And maybe we can also work on making the queer world one in which no one feels like an alien and a stranger.