Viewpoint: A Separate But Equal Ruling for Gay Marriage

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The Supreme Court of New Jersey has ruled in favor of gay marriage, sort of. By a vote of 4 to 3, the court says the state must afford gay couples all the “rights and benefits” that straight couples have under the law. But the majority punted on the question of what to call gay marriages. If it doesn’t want to call them marriages, the legislature is free to come up with a term of its choosing for committed gay relationships.

In other words, the court is fine with a nomenclature under which some marriages would be separate — but equal. In a sentence that will seem silly — and unjust — in 20 years, the court says this explicitly: “We will not presume that a separate statutory scheme, which uses a title other than marriage, contravenes equal protection principles, so long as the rights and benefits of civil marriage are made equally available to same-sex couples.” The Plessy court couldn’t have said it better: separate railway cars for blacks are fine, as long as they are just as nice as the ones for whites. Don’t bother about that curtain between the black and white cars. “Marriages,” “civil unions,” “two guys shacking up with a lot of All-Clad cookware” — does the term really matter?

It does. Actually, I have a bit of sympathy for the court on what to call gay relationships. I was never certain what to call my boyfriend of eight years — ick, “boyfriend.” I’m 35, not 15. But “partner” sounds clinical, “lover” sounds too ’70s and “longtime companion” sounds pathetic, evoking two old queens in cardigans watching Bette Davis movies.

Nothing else sounds right because we already have a terminology for our better halves — spouses, husbands, wives. But because Michael and I couldn’t marry, calling him my “spouse” was a lie. So I always introduced him as my “partner” and put my hand around his waist, to show we didn’t just run a pet store or a restaurant or a Hollywood studio together. I also showed pictures of our two beautiful cats (wait a second, do we sound like “longtime companions” now?).

To be sure, the New Jersey decision has moments of ringing clarity. It enumerates specific ways in which gay couples suffer when they can’t marry, even gay couples in a state like New Jersey that protects gay individuals from discrimination. For instance, the court noted that if a lesbian dies, her partner doesn’t currently have access to survivor benefits under the state Workers’ Compensation Act. She can’t get the back wages owed to her deceased girlfriend. She can’t get the compensation available to spouses and other relatives of homicide victims. Gay parents in New Jersey can go through the long, expensive process of adopting the children of their partners, but straight people must only get married — anywhere, even in a quickie Vegas hitch — and the state automatically presumes dual parentage.

The court’s decision will end these (and many other) inequalities, and in that sense it stands in contrast to the embarrassing New York high court ruling from earlier this year. A skein of twisted reasoning, that 4-2 decision went against marriage equality. In an unpersuasive bit of reverse bigotry, the New York court said that because straight relationships “are all too often casual or temporary” and can lead to children born out of wedlock, the state needed to help straights by maintaining an exclusive, all-heterosexual club called marriage. Straight people used to be obsessed with the dangers of gay bathhouses; I guess sports bars and hetero dating sites are now the real dangers to society.

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