I encounter heterosexism every day in my job as a lawyer. It’s not necessarily conscious heterosexism, mind you, but it’s there just the same. For the record, it’s grown boring.
In the gay and lesbian community, life isn’t quite the same as it is for heterosexual couples. Sure, a handful of states have legalized gay marriage. It’s about time the dark ages ended, but I digress. The federal government hides behind DOMA because we all know that marriage should be defined as between one man and one woman. Excuse me while I scream. Okay, I’m back.
I had a conversation a several years ago with a woman who professed to believe in equal rights for gay and lesbian people. I’m paraphrasing here, but she basically told me that she didn’t understand why gay couples were so upset that they weren’t allowed to be married. After all, they could live together no matter what the law dictated, so what was the big deal?
My knee-jerk reaction was to politely (and abruptly) excuse myself from the conversation. I opted to educate her instead. “You’re married, right?” I asked. “Yes, I’ve been married to a wonderful man for almost 20 years this June,” she replied. “So if you’re husband dies,” I continued, “you have the right to claim his body, make funeral arrangements, and publish an obituary that names you as his wife?” “Well, of course!” she answered. “Are you aware that those gay and lesbian couples who have lived together for 20 years (no matter what the law dictates) don’t have that same right because they can’t get married?” I asked. “Really?” she replied in what genuinely appeared to be surprise. “Well, that’s not right.” I nodded my head and took my leave.
An hour later, that woman found me engaged in conversation with someone else and asked if I had a moment to chat. I swallowed hard, excused myself from the engaging conversation I was actually enjoying and focused my attention on her. “I was thinking about what you told me,” she said. “And I think it’s time to make some changes in this country.” I smiled. Change is on the horizon. One person at a time.
Fast-forward to the year 2000 when Vermont became the first state in the country to legalize civil unions for same-sex couples. Touted as the legal equivalent of marriage, it was a revolutionary new status granted to gay and lesbian couples. It was also the start of something much bigger.
Some 10 years later, gay marriage is legal in Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont, Iowa and the District of Columbia. Still, there are those heterosexists among us who are blinded by a strong belief that marriage should be restricted to heterosexual couples. California and Maine are two painful illustrations of heterosexism at its finest.
I will likely be dead before this entire country has seen the light. Still, I remain optimistic. I do my best to educate otherwise well-educated people on the issues that same-sex couples face every day. Sometimes, I watch as the light goes on. Other times, I shake my head in disbelief.
I’ll keep trying. Will you?
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copyright 2010 Irene C. Olszewski