This week Americans finally achieved marriage equality, and my fellow Canadians cheered (and quietly gloated over the fact that we’ve had it for the last ten years). While this is truly awesome, it also tugged at a small quiet chord of pain for myself and many others.
Amongst the cheers, some quiet whispers: we’re not quite there yet folks, not yet.
For those of us who live in poverty, are disabled people, or are otherwise oppressed, marriage means giving up certain safety, and reassurance that the what dignity we still have will be protected. It is a right that is given to us only if we meet certain normalizing criteria, incomes, or self-sufficiency. It means making ourselves vulnerable not only to our partners, but to the harsh oppressive voices we’ve worked to block out as single people. To join the club, you have to belong in the club.
Now don’t get me wrong, marriage is amazing. I am happy for those I know who are married, and for those who are happily getting married as a result of this recent decision. I believe that if society values marriage so highly, then all those who choose to enter it fully should be allowed to do so without fear.
For disabled people, the fear comes in two forms: society and policy. The society part is what we often talk about. How society still views disabled people as burdens, and how that plays out in our gender roles. For example, when I was growing up I was told that if I’m lucky I’ll find a good man who could see past my disability and take care of me, and when I do, I’d better hold on to him. Now I know that any person I choose better value my disability and see me as an equal partner. The point is that messages like make good partners hard to find, and keeps us vulnerable to less healthy partners.
Even if we do find healthy relationships, social policies still stand in our way. These things are hard to talk about because it involves programs that we’ve been conditioned to feel lucky to have, like social assistance and affordable accessible housing.
This American author had the courage to say what I did not, but it’s still true in Canada, including Ontario. While disabled people can technically marry, to do so they give up already meager social assistance, or certain kinds of accessible housing (like what I live in), or supportive housing. Many programs for disabled people are designed around the assumption that disabled people are not marriage material.
While not nearly as profoundly damaging as an outright ban on marriage, these policies still impact the public view of marriage. It is an injustice to pretend these polices do not exist.
What follows is one of my favourite quotes from the Kennedy decision, taken from Mother Jones:
“No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family. In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than once they were. As some of the petitioners in these cases demonstrate, marriage embodies a love that may endure even past death. It would misunderstand these men and women to say they disrespect the idea of marriage. Their plea is that they do respect it, respect it so deeply that they seek to find its fulfillment for themselves. Their hope is not to be condemned to live in loneliness, excluded from one of civilization’s oldest institutions. They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right.”
Don’t we all deserve that much?