Hess: Black Robes and Golden Bands
On April 28, the United States Supreme Court heard the oral arguments for Obergefell vs. Hodges, the case that will decide the legality of same-sex marriage across the nation — and by extension, the futures of millions of queer Americans.
I think many overlook the significance of same-sex marriage. With it comes privileges that have long been denied to queer people, and through it comes a fundamental validation of love — regardless of the genders or sexualities of those who share it.
As an institution, I find marriage to be deeply flawed. It is founded upon a traditionalism that I find repugnant, and its history is stained by misogyny. I would prefer an institution more radical, but can admit for now it is the most promising means of achieving equity. As a romantic ideal, however, I can think of nothing more beautiful. In its essence, marriage symbolizes everlasting love and partnership, through unknowable difficulties and countless years. The ideal of marriage and the intimacy that comprises it is bigger and better than what we are as mere individuals. I will always believe in matrimony, regardless of its flaws and problematic history. There is nothing more beautiful and transformative that we can experience in our lives than the endless depths of the kind of love that marriage is meant to manifest.
Beyond idealism, however, marriage provides legal rights long denied to queer people. We must remember that the movement for same-sex marriage was largely catalyzed by the AIDS crisis, when partners were unable to visit their dying loved ones in the hospital because their relationships were not legally recognized. Nor should we forget that the Obergefell case resulted from a similar situation: in the wake of Obergefell’s husband’s death, the state of Ohio refused to recognize their marriage in Maryland and list the two as married on Obergefell’s husband’s death certificate. The Supreme Court has since consolidated it with three other same-sex marriage cases from Kentucky, Michigan and Tennessee. Because of its significance, the right of matrimony cannot be denied to queer people. Marriage — not a civil union — is what must be guaranteed to queers to allow for complete equality, through the law and in love. “Separate but equal” is a strategy that has never succeeded in the pursuit of equality.
The Supreme Court’s ruling is about more than the institution of marriage itself — it is about the legal and cultural validation of queer love. It is about affirming same-sex love’s worth, in the eyes of the law and society as a whole. Legalization of same-sex marriage should not be the ultimate objective of the LGBTQ-rights movement, but it is important for what its achievement signifies.
As Judith Butler said of queer love, “There are certain kinds of love that are held not to be love, loss that is held not to be loss, that remain within this kind of unthinkable domain.” Until society provides queer people the legal guarantee of marriage and all privileges enjoyed by their heterosexual peers, queer love will remain illegitimate. Anything less than this is an insult to equality and an inadequate remedy to historical injustices.
Speaking as a queer person, to love is not easy. It is often dangerous, often delegitimized and often crushed because of its fragile locus in the public sphere. But love is the greatest gift life can give to us. Even when it fails us, it is still a beautiful thing. I am entirely overjoyed by the prospect of having more love, of someday soon having the right to marry and create a future with someone.
Marriage is neither perfect nor perfectible, but it represents one unique realization of love. That love is the voice that shouts over all silences, the hope with no match in fear and the strength so powerful that fists and force mean nothing in its face. It is a truth as absolute as the whispers of God, more first than Genesis, more last than Revelation and more beautiful than anything in creation. This beauty is what inspires my hope for a future in which my love and the love of millions of others is both legally validated and protected from persecution. I am both so excited and so frightened for the upcoming decision because of what is at stake. And now I will wait hopefully until the Court’s announcement in just a few short weeks — because this decision is not only a judgment upon the legality of same-sex marriage, but upon the virtue, beauty and validity of queer love itself.