Equal rights, not sainthood

23 Sep

Singer Melissa Etheridge’s legal battle with her ex-partner Tammy Lynn Michaels over child custody, spousal support and division of property has captured some media attention: critical to the determination of who gets what is whether or not the couple were, in fact, married. Etheridge is claiming that they were not.

This news has sent some proponents of gay marriage reeling. Isn’t Etheridge’s position an undermining of the entire movement? Isn’t she single-handedly undoing all that equal rights activists are striving for? How can a lesbian deny the reality and legitimacy of her own marriage?

While I’m sympathetic to the concerns of activists who don’t want to offer any ammunition to the opponents of gay marriage, I don’t think it’s just or fair to conflate the right to divorce (with all the ugliness that can entail) with the right to marry.

To be blunt: I hope that what we’re fighting for is simply the right to marry–not the right to marry saddled with the contingent responsibility to act better than heterosexual people do when marriage doesn’t work out.

Whether or not it’s disappointing that Etheridge is using a legal technicality/reality to define her current obligation to Michaels, she is making a legal argument. And yes, it all gets muddled if she once claimed it was a real marriage and now doesn’t… but there’s a familiar heterosexual ring to that duality, isn’t there? And should she be denied the right to use a legally sanctioned argument that countless heterosexual exes use every day in the dissolutions of their own unions? Isn’t it doubly discriminatory to deny the right to marriage… and then deny the right to argue the fact that she wasn’t (at least legally) married?

While I do hope that equal rights means equal access and opportunity to privilege, rather than equal opportunity to act like a heel, I don’t think it’s fair to ask gay people to be better at marriage and divorce than heterosexual people. I don’t think they should have to be saints to share this legal privilege.

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