Saturday, January 19, 2013

Equality Etiquette

Change is hard. Sometimes I wish for the days of Leave It to Beaver when mom stayed home and wore pearls and high heels to do housework. It seems like it was a simpler time when Emily Post knew all the answers.

In the old days, there were husbands and wives. Well, there were those maiden "sisters" who lived together up the street. Oh, and Uncle Frank, the "confirmed bachelor." Hmm, maybe those days weren't simpler. People just hid anything about themselves that didn't fit the norm.

Well, the cat's out of the bag. Now we are surrounded by all kinds of people who flaunt their special qualities. But our language hasn't developed at the same rate.

What do we call our friend's lover? "Boyfriend" or "girlfriend" sound so juvenile. What if the couple is same-sex?  "Partner" sounds so business-like and can be confusing. And when they get married, they're both "wives" or "husbands"?

Frankly, I'm not crazy about being called a "wife".  The word connotes a domesticity I don't have or want. When someone refers to me as Chris's wife, I feel like I should be wearing a lovely house dress while I pull the meatloaf out of the oven. That feeling is exacerbated by the existence of Sister Wives on TV. Now that's domesticity.

Although I enjoy being married, having a "husband" makes me feel confined and defined. I usually call him my "Spousal Unit."

The etiquette books can't keep up either. Although there is a profusion of  newspaper, magazine and on-line articles to guide a gay couple, no new Emily Post has emerged to establish the New Rules. When I hear stories about people trying to fit their lives into the slots made by traditions, I cringe a little.

When Chris and I got married in 1981, we didn't care about breaking rules. We fought to omit "obey" from the vows and demanded "husband and wife" over "man and wife." No one "gave me away" and we walked down the aisle together. We didn't have ushers who asked guests whether they were "bride's side" or"groom's side." We had a carrot sheet cake without a topper.  We couldn't have found one with a Chinese groom and red-headed bride anyway.

Maybe we felt comfortable breaking the little rules because we weren't breaking any big ones. Interracial marriage, while not yet common, had been legal for most of our lives. Falling in love with someone of a different race might not have been the easiest road, but it was much easier than being gay.

While we are alike in struggling for society's approval for who we love, who they love is a more fundamental part of what makes them different. Most LGTB adults have been called deviants and perverts as some point. The Christian right condemns them, not just their circumstances (that they love someone inconvenient) but their whole identity.

Like marriage, sexual activity is controlled at the state level. Prior to 1962, sodomy was a felony in every state. Many of those laws were repealed during the following decades of free love. But even as late as 1986, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld Georgia's sodomy law under which an individual could receive a prison sentence of 20 years for one occurrence of consensual, private oral or anal sex.

Bowers v. Hardwick, 478 U.S. 186 (1986), ruled that the right to privacy implicit in the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution did not extend to private, consensual homosexual sex. In his concurring opinion, Chief Justice Warren E. Burger described homosexual sex as a crime against nature, worse than rape and said, "To hold that the act of homosexual sodomy is somehow protected as a fundamental right would be to cast aside millennia of moral teaching."

Sodomy was still a felony in fourteen states when Lawrence v. Texas was decided in 2003. In 1998, officers responding to a false police report arrested John Lawrence for violating Texas's "Homosexual Conduct" law which outlawed engaging in "deviate sexual intercourse with another individual of the same sex".

The Supreme Court struck down the Texas law and invalidated all  state sodomy laws, finding that private sexual conduct is protected by the liberty rights implicit in the due process clause of the United States Constitution. Sandra Day O'Connor found that it also violated Equal Protection guarantees. Anthony Kennedy wrote, "The petitioners are entitled to respect for their private lives. The State cannot demean their existence or control their destiny by making their private sexual conduct a crime."

This is recent history, folks.

Maybe the traditions that we so cavalierly cast aside are vital to young LGTB couples and symbolic of their growing acceptance and inclusion. Maybe their wedding will feel more "real" if their fathers walk them down the aisle or they throw their bouquets. Gay couples are forging their own paths. I hope they fill their ceremonies and lives with meaning and significance. And that their love lasts forever.

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