When Legal Recognition MATTERS

One evening not too many weeks ago, Sarah was having trouble breathing. Typically, one puff from the inhaler and all is well. But that night was different. Sarah couldn’t hold coherent conversation, was having trouble lying down, and labored with every breath. Lindsey tried to assess the situation. After watching Sarah’s symptoms develop and worsen over the course of the evening, Lindsey made the call to drive Sarah to the nearby Emergency Room.

It is times like these when legal recognition matters.

As a couple dealing with chronic health conditions, we are no strangers to navigating various healthcare webs. Health can play up just about anywhere or anytime. Because Sarah has severe asthma and other health problems, we tend towards choosing to see a doctor when we deem it necessary. In dealing with healthcare professionals, we have had significantly more positive experiences when seeing a provider who can recognize our relationship than when seeing one who cannot and will not.

We were in the middle of an impromptu day trip somewhere in the State of Virginia. On the side of the road, we saw an old train station that had been turned into a museum. Intrigued, we decided to stop and visit. It was a combined railway station and post office from 1910. In this building, a placard over one door reads, “White” while a placard over the other door reads, “Colored.”

It is in places like this where labels matter.

Now, before we take this post too much farther, let us say directly that we do not think it is appropriate to compare the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s with current movements to expand legal rights of LGBT people as though the two are exactly the same. There are many important points of difference, and the few points of similarity that do exist are not our reason for sharing these two stories in the same post. We began with these stories because they are experiences we have shared as a couple. Being in the two different environments–the emergency room and the train station–evoked various reflections that influence how we see questions of legal recognition for LGBT people.

As members of a sacramental Christian tradition, we have no intention of advocating for our church to recognize our relationship as a sacramental marriage. We have no problem with being known simply as “Lindsey and Sarah,” and we enjoy participating in the life of our parish together. A sacramental marriage in our tradition crowns two people as martyrs to one another, laying down their lives for each other in an act of sacrificial love. A sacramental marriage is not about legal name changes, the ability to file taxes together, qualifying for health insurance, gaining access to medical records, coordinating treatment across diverse providers, combining incomes when trying to qualify for a mortgage, and managing end-of-life care. Those functions get housed in the civil (legal) sphere.

Lindsey is often bemused when thinking about how monasteries secure various legal rights that enable them to care for members of their communities. Could you just imagine the scene of an atheist father and a newly-Buddhist mother barging into a Catholic monastery to demand that they alone have the right to plan the funeral of their son who has recently fallen asleep in the Lord? Chaos and madness would ensue. Could you imagine an Orthodox nun tasked to take a very ill member of the community to the hospital only to drop the patient off at registration and have no access to any information about her during her stay? It does not happen that way. Somehow, some way, laws exist in most places to protect the fidelity of the monastic vows and the relationship of each individual sister or brother to the community. …and if those laws do not exist, many Christians rightly call forth “Persecution!”

Society has a lot of automatic systems that just seem to “kick in.” There is a lot of support when parents are trying to make sure that a new baby is appropriately recognized as a member of their family, when monasteries tonsure new members, and when two individuals get married. Along the way, additional benefits accrue–often, without the recipients of the benefits even being aware. A call to one critical agency can set a Rube-Goldberg-type legal machine into action. It’s unlikely that anyone (except maybe some attorneys and the IRS) actually knows the full process by which a newly married couple formally receives all of the 1,000+ legal rights and responsibilities associated with that status.

Many people will argue that marriage or a similar type of legal recognition for same-sex relationships is unnecessary because a same-sex couple can use alternate contractual structures such as securing a Power of Attorney. Both of us know different LGBT couples who have tried to navigate the complex gamut of legal procedures required to use these alternate contractual structures. Several attorneys and multiple thousands of dollars later, they have a piecemeal collection of documents that they hope will safeguard their relationship when legal recognition matters most.

The problem of securing legal protection to care for and provide for loved ones is not unique to LGBT couples. Oftentimes, singles and heterosexual couples who have not yet married face similar problems. One of Sarah’s friends once shared a story in which he was denied bereavement leave from work when his fiance’s mother reposed. His workplace cited that they could not grant him bereavement leave because he was not yet married and had no familial relationship to the reposed. It did not matter that months later, the reposed would have been his mother-in-law. If this event had occurred when he was married, his workplace would have taken him at his word that he needed leave time for his mother-in-law’s funeral. In America, people who are related through blood, adoption, or marriage have a privilege that people who are related by choice do not. (Common law marriages try to bridge the gap in at least some of these instances when a man and a woman share a house for a number of years.)

When we think about it, we see that many Americans do not have the security of knowing the people they choose to share life with will be legally authorized to be there when their presence matters most. The only exception to this is if the people with whom one chooses to do life happen to be one’s family of origin, one’s (opposite-sex) spouse, or one’s monastic family. Any other relationship is relegated to a second-class status. In a way, it is like those signs that hung over the train station doors. It is discrimination based on one human being’s label for his or her relationship to other human beings: family of origin and family by marriage have access to the full range of rights and privileges, and family of choice often gets stuck with the leftovers. More than a few times, Lindsey has had no choice but to remain silently in waiting rooms with no updates when Sarah has been seriously ill or undergoing a medical procedure. Doctors have actively denied Lindsey the ability to see Sarah in a surgical recovery room and access to any sort of aftercare instructions. Once, when Sarah told a physician, “My partner, Lindsey, is here to take me home afterward,” the physician said, “That doesn’t matter. I asked if you were married and have a spouse here.” That same physician later requested contact information for Sarah’s parents even though Lindsey was less than 15 feet away. Because of various legal mechanisms, lack of a legal title negates any level of relationship that two people have to one another.

Given this reality, we ask: what option does an LGBT couple who do not regard their relationship as a sacramental/religious marriage have for ensuring that they are legally protected? Many Christian denominations have promoted the idea that allowing LGBT people to marry legally will have a detrimental effect on how that particular denomination can articulate an understanding of marriage. Therefore, these denominations assert the importance of limiting the legal definition of marriage to one man and one woman. But for all the concern about protecting the institution of marriage and ensuring that there will be no misunderstanding regarding their doctrines on the religious nature of marriage, there is little to no empathy for the lived experiences of so many LGBT couples when one partner has been denied the basic privilege of caring for the other in times of emergency.

For this reason, we tend to believe that all Christian denominations have a responsibility to define marriage theologically in whatever way they deem appropriate while also working to protect LGBT people from undue discrimination in various social contexts. We do not claim to know the best solution for accomplishing this particular work of justice. But, we find these questions critical, and we are grateful that currently, we live in a place where we have some legal options to ensure that we can care for one another. Not every LGBT couple is so fortunate.

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