Conflicting Values

I couldn’t believe it. I never thought it could happen but, for a fleeting moment, I felt like one of those detestable politicians who have always made me cringe when they refer to the “manipulative poor.” In previous articles, I have spoken of my pseudo sister-in-law, Lisa. She is the person who promised my husband Gary as a Christmas present not to vote for Rick Santorum in his Pennsylvania senatorial reelection bid later this year. Lisa had earlier been the inspiration for a seven-page letter I wrote unsuccessfully trying to persuade a vote against for Bush in the ‘04 presidential election.

First I must explain that Gary’s brother, Mark, is the father of two adorable children with his girlfriend. They have been together for four years, but are not yet married, thus the “pseudo.” Our history with them has been rocky, as with many sibling relationships. They were the only family members not to attend our wedding in Montreal this past summer because she was pregnant with their second child. OK, I got that. They vote Republican, even after it became clear to everyone, including themselves, that in doing so they act against their own economic interests. They have also been showered with money, furniture, clothing, free babysitting, and just about anything else they have needed from Gary’s family, who, rightfully so, are absolutely smitten with their two children, ages eight months and three.

Gary’s Italian mother beamed as she welcomed parishioners at the family Catholic Church to the baptism of her second grandchild born out of wedlock. After 17 years together, I think that Gary and I have softened her up a bit to the concept of a nontraditional family. Much to the credit of Gary’s mother, her desire for Mark and Lisa to get married is not as great as her love and dedication to their children. While she has anticipated their marriage for more than a year now, she has never pushed the issue.

Last month, Gary’s brother and his girlfriend told us that they have called off their much anticipated wedding. The reason—money, pure and simple. As a single mother, Lisa is able to receive government assistance in the form of healthcare for herself and her daughters, food, and educational credit toward her nursing degree, all while living with Gary’s brother in their new home. If they marry, his income would be combined with hers and she would not be eligible for any of it.

Okay, this is when that horrible “Rush”—well…—rushes in. Lisa is taking advantage of a system clearly designed to protect single mothers on their own with no monetary or healthcare support. She does not fit that description. Gary and I have fought for most of our adult lives to secure the right to financial security and healthcare support for every American—through access to civil marriage. Mark and Lisa, meanwhile, have the right to marry and choose not to. The irony doesn’t escape me.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not a single issue voter, no matter how tempting it is. I believe in the programs that Gary’s brother and his girlfriend are taking advantage of. I believe in their children’s right to have an educated mother who will be able to provide for them and secure their happiness. What I don’t believe in is taking for granted—even going so far as to take advantage of—the assistance of programs that you ideologically disagree with and vote against in election after election.

When they told us about their decision not to marry and why, I said that I hoped that they would stop voting for Republicans, who would take away the very programs that form the basis of their non-matrimonial reality. I was met with a quietly muttered, “I know, I know.”

Where does that leave Gary and me? We are progressive liberals who, in every other circumstance, support the right of an individual to make the decision that our family members Mark and Lisa have made, and even for the very reasons that they made it. When it comes to marriage though, we are biased. It is not a matter of our wedding day having been the most emotionally fulfilling experience of our lives, a pleasure that we would gladly see extended to anyone so inclined. Nor is it a matter of Gary and I falling victim to the prevailing, socially dangerous preference for “coupledom,” particularly when that married coupledom is between non-gay people. Instead, our bias toward marriage equality is what we are called to.

Living with conflicting feelings and values is exactly what I imagine that many Americans who are not gay or lesbian experience when confronted with the issue of marriage equality. While wanting to support their gay and lesbian friends and family members, they are also steeped in the notion that some things are just “right” and some things are just “wrong.” While I may share their sense of confusion on some issues, this I know for sure—marriage is and must always be a choice, for everyone. Whether couples choose to marry or not, they should have the right to make that decision, just as Gary’s brother and his girlfriend have done.

Anthony M. Brown was a research assistant to Nan Hunter, founder of the Gay and Lesbian Project at the ACLU and helped prepare the plaintiffs’ brief for the Lawrence v. Texas sodomy case while interning at Lambda Legal in 2002. Currently the head of the Nontraditional Family and Estates Law division at the McKenna, Siracusano & Chianese law firm and a board member of The Wedding Party, he can be reached at