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With Kaethe Morris Hoffer

Kaethe Morris Hoffer, a feminist attorney, explores equality, justice, and the complexities of living in a world in which power is abused and gendered.

Getting Married in Massachusetts
©Kaethe Morris Hoffer, 2004

My son is seventeen months old. We're teaching him (with occasional success) what he is and isn't allowed to do. No standing on chairs, no biting people or cats, no throwing blocks. We encourage him to use his fork and spoon, to build (and knock down) towers of cardboard bricks, and to pick out the books he wants us to read with him. We say "good job" when he pulls himself onto the couch, or scoots himself down the stairs, or gives his friend a gentle hug. Although it isn't easy, we're trying to keep it simple. We want to encourage his curiosity and courage, while teaching him boundaries that will keep him from getting hurt-and keep him from harming others.

I know that it is going to get a lot more complicated. Each day's headlines are evidence that the world is no less full of violence and poverty and injustice than before I had a child. Despite my longings for a world dominated only by peace, love, and equality-yearnings that have only intensified since I became a mom-I am always being reminded that my son's universe is no more perfect than the one I live in. So although it may be boring to remind him-over and over-that good touches with a cat avoid tail-pulling, I am grateful for the refuge of easy lessons, and simple absolutes.

At some point, he's going to confront malice. Although we'll work hard to teach him about beauty and love, he's also going to learn about discrimination, and inequality. We'll expose him to art, and teach him how to plant flowers and tend a garden, and we'll read stories to him about bunnies and kittens, and families that love each other and have marvelous adventures. But as he gets older, he'll also learn about war, about men like Hitler, about genocide, about rape-death camps in Bosnia-Herzogovina, about the Tuskegee experiments, about poverty.

Although it makes me sad that he's going to learn about the ugliness that happens on this planet, I believe we'll be able to help him see what's worth fighting against without losing sight of all the joy and good in the world. What intimidates me is teaching him how to act-and refuse to be paralyzed-where choices are mostly a lot more complicated than picking between good and evil. I'm thinking about the challenges of complexity and compromise a lot right now, because after five years of being married to my husband without the benefits that come with a marriage license, we're planning a trip to Massachusetts, to "legalize" our relationship.

We didn't get a marriage license when we were first married (in a religious service that combined our Quaker and Lutheran traditions), because we object to the ways in which marriage law is used to maintain inequality, and to relegate gay men and lesbians to second-class citizenship. Because we are a straight couple, a tremendous amount of privilege accrues to us in ways that we can't control (one tiny example: we can hold hands and kiss in public without ever worrying that we'll "offend" anyone, or be targeted with violence). But we figured that at least we could forgo certain legal benefits that are reserved only for straight couples-we said we'd wait for the institution of marriage to legitimize itself before we'd let it legitimize us.

For the most part, our decision has had little effect on our lives, and although it communicates our desire to stand in solidarity with gay men and lesbians, I can't claim that it has resulted in any tangible benefits to the fight for equality. But over the last eighteen months-ever since I stopped working to stay at home with our son-our legal status has required us to pay almost $400 a month for my health insurance. My husband's employer provides health insurance for the families of all its employees, both gay and straight, but their domestic partner benefits are available only to same-sex couples-so we can't get health coverage for me without a marriage license. Given the very real costs of being gay or lesbian in a world that is set up to benefit straight people, the expense of my health insurance seemed like a cost we should bear without complaint. But then we found out that the cost of my health insurance would be skyrocketing.

All of a sudden, we were faced with the prospect of paying more than $5,000 a year so we could say that we were putting our "money where our mouth is" on the issue of gay marriage. As proud as we have been of our abstention from legal marriage, and as much as we want to live in a way that stands against inequality, we decided to revisit the issue. And then the Massachusetts Supreme Court ruled that gay men and lesbians were entitled to marriage in that state on an equal footing with their straight counterparts.

Although it is not as good as the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in favor of gay marriage-an outcome that we believe is mandated by equality law, and that we hope will come in our lifetimes-we are thrilled by the leadership being demonstrated by Massachusetts' highest court. And so we have decided to travel to Massachusetts, and pay the marriage license fees of that state, and get ourselves legally hitched there. And every month, instead of funding an insurance company, we will donate money to an organization fighting for gay and lesbian rights.

With a marriage license, we will be joining a new group: the large and growing ranks of married straight couples who oppose using marriage as a tool for discrimination, and who reject the proposition that the sanctity of their marriage depends on excluding gay men and lesbians from its benefits. It is a group of people that we respect, and whose commitment to equality we haven't meant to question with the choices we have made. But still, it hasn't been easy for us to make this decision, and ultimately, I don't know if we are doing the right thing, or just the easy thing.

As I remind my son, for the millionth time, that he can't bite other toddlers, or the cats, I hope I am helping him learn to live in a way that treasures the humanity, and integrity, of all the people and creatures he shares this world with. And I hope that my exasperation at having to pull him down from the table-again-will be tempered by my appreciation for the simplicity of the messages that I get to focus on right now. Ultimately I know that he will have questions about inequality, and ultimately he will learn that supporting his best friends' family will mean fighting against anti-gay bigotry. But mostly, while he may not come to believe that we did the right thing in getting a marriage license, I hope he'll be someone who embraces life and the struggle for equality while understanding-as much as possible-the complexities inherent in both.

Kaethe Morris Hoffer
[email protected]



Kaethe is an attorney from Evanston, Illinois. She served on the Governor's Commission on the Status of Women in Illinois from 1999 to 2003, where she chaired the Commission's Violence Reduction Working Group. She is co-author of the Gender Violence Act.



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