I recently had a conversation with a lovely young man attending San Francisco State, and his partner.
This young man had transferred from university in his home country, where tuition was free and costs for books, room, and board were kept extremely low, to the United States, specifically so that he could be with his partner. He crossed an ocean and a continent to be here. Cue swell of music which is meant to convey momentous love.
Tuition for people who are not California residents is extremely high at State. Indeed, almost prohibitively so. The obvious solution to the problem would be for this young man to marry his partner so that he could earn resident status, which would thereby lower his tuition.
But he can’t do that.
Because they’re gay.
Living in San Francisco, he is fortunate enough to be included in his partner’s health benefits, which turned out to be critically important when he needed a major surgery. But their partnership is not recognized under the law. He cannot earn residence status (quickly) even though he moved here to be with his partner, because he is gay, and his partnership is therefore invalid.
In the eyes of the government, they are roommates. If something happened to either one, the other partner would be powerless to intervene. Might be denied the right to visit in hospital. Might be told that he is not “family.” Their partnership is indescribably fragile and ephemeral because the state thinks that it does not have a right to exist. Because many Californians, in fact, do not think that it has a right to exist.
In fact, the blood family of either man could step in and make decisions against the will of the other partner, if a situation in which decisions had to be made came up. Despite experiencing alienation from their families because of their sexuality, either man could someday find himself powerless and at the mercy of family members who have told him to “just find a nice woman, get married, and have some children.”
Think about that, heterosexual and cis folks (because marriage is often denied to trans folks as a result of prejudice and gender essentialism). Think about how it would feel to uproot your entire life to be with someone, and to find out that your relationship was not recognized.
Oh, sure, your relationship is what you make it. It’s what’s on the inside that counts. You know that you love each other, even if the government does not recognize your union, right? That’s all that matters, is that.
Except when you need something which you can only access through marriage.
Thanks to the structure of our society, marriage is about a lot more than a public affirmation of love. It’s a key which opens many doors, because the only way to have a legally recognized relationship is to have a marriage. (Even though what these men really want is a civil union, because they are not interested in a religious ceremony.)
In a world which makes sense, everyone who wants a partnership recognized legally could enter a civil union. No matter what genders/nongenders are involved. And those who were interested, who wanted a religious ceremony, could also have a separate marriage. Or handfasting. Or other commitment recognized under their religious beliefs.
This legally recognized partnership would come with all the rights and responsibilities it deserves, under the law, however the people in the partnership wanted to describe it. Whatever kind of relationship they had wouldn’t be the state’s or anyone else’s business, because it would be a private matter and would be respected as such.
In a world which makes sense, these two men could enter a civil union, and this young man could work towards resident status, perhaps even eventually citizenship, if that’s what he decides he wants. He could qualify for in-state tuition after having lived here long enough in his legally recognized partnership, so that the cost of school would not be so absurdly high. These two men could rest comfortably, knowing that if something happened, their relationship would be recognized and honored. That they could be empowered to make decisions for each other, if need be.
No, marriage is not the most important thing for LGBQT rights. It’s one facet of a much larger fight. But I know a lot of couples who would sleep much more soundly in their beds if they knew that their relationships were recognized, or that legal recognition was an option, even if they weren’t interested in pursuing it right now. I know a lot of people who would like to know that they can access the same benefits that cis straight folks can.
It’s not necessarily the symbol of “marriage” that these folks want, it’s the security of a legally recognized, honored, and respected relationship. That same thing that cis straight folks can access in 30 minutes in Vegas.