You Gotta Give ‘Em Hope

The Prop 8 trial began last week in San Francisco, and I’ve been glued to it — glued to my computer that is, reading the ‘tweets‘ and the reports from those live-blogging the trial since it’s not being televised.

I didn’t expect to follow the trial. I already know how I feel about marriage equality, what could I learn from a legal take on something that I feel so strongly about? I thought it’d be boring, full of legal-speak and debates about the law, but instead the trial reads like a conversation, one this country needs to have about what marriage means  —  and since it can be a polarizing topic, it actually helps that there’s a moderator (the judge) and a legal structure to the proceedings.

I’d volunteered with the No on 8 side in 2008, but until the trial, I didn’t fully understand that marriage is something very different from domestic partnerships and civil unions. Marriage confers legitimacy and citizenship not just from the government, but also from society and even one’s own family. When I married, my aunt told me how happy she was that Mr. WholeHog was now part of the family. I knew she meant well but it still seemed strange to me, since in the seven years before we married, Mr. WholeHog attended family weddings, funerals and birthday parties. He never missed our annual family trip to Tahoe. Yet for my aunt, he wasn’t “really” family until we were married.

Helen Zia, a witness in the trial, testified about how different domestic partnership was from marriage. She’d married her long time “domestic partner”, Lia, when same sex marriage was legal in California and she explained how marriage began “a process of our families coming together in a way that did not happen in the prior 11 years that we had been domestic partners.” Zia also found that marriage truly made her part of family: “there was no question that I was Lia’s wife and I was a member of the family, and there was no ambiguity about it. I wasn’t some partner in business or partner in life. I was her spouse.”

Who dreams that when they grow up, they’ll get to be someone’s partner? I’d bet most of us grew up expecting we’d be someone’s spouse. But one of the sad realizations I had reading the testimony of gay and lesbian couples was that many had no expectation that they’d be able to marry. While I’d grown up with the worry that I would never find the right person to spend my life with, they grew up with the knowledge that even if they were lucky enough to find someone to grow old with, they still wouldn’t be able to have what our culture considers a happy ending.

As moving as the personal stories are, the Prop 8 trial may be most convincing when it looks back at the history of marriage and the many ways marriage has changed over the years. Professor Nancy Cott testified about the many minority groups that were historically denied the right to marry, such as slaves, interracial couples, as well as restrictions on the ability of Asian immigrants to marry. Cott further detailed how entrenched government has been in marriage, how it has repeatedly tied marriage to citizenship, property and inheritance.

Like any good discussion, the trial makes you think and it may cause you to rethink your assumptions. It made me reconsider my tendency to blow off marriage as “just a piece of paper”. It gave me a better understanding of marriage and made me a more educated supporter of marriage equality. It’s also given me the distinct feeling of watching history in action. Many people believe this will go to the Supreme Court. But perhaps most importantly, it’s given me hope again that justice is in sight.

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