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The Semantics of Togetherness

When I first arrived in San Francisco, among the first people I met in the city told me that he thought, "Civil unions and marriages are just a matter of semantics." Prior to that, I had stated that I believed everyone should have civil unions, with marriages left as a personal ceremony removed from the state.

I was disturbed to hear his opinion, more so because in San Francisco of all places, coming from a well-educated, secular, liberal, politically aware individual, this seemed painfully paradoxical.

Initially, I tried to understand this contrast in values as a cultural difference. A well-educated, relatively liberal individual, probably raised in a middle-classed household and having grown up with the privileges and constraints of suburban America, could not have had the exposure to the type of religious and sexual dissonance present in other parts of the world regarding civil marriages.

I do not see civil unions, understood here to be the same as civil marriages, as a matter of semantics. I did not have the cultural or sexual upbringing to afford that view.

Where I come from, civil marriages are also only the privilege of a special class. In Malaysia, civil marriages can only be contracted by non-Muslims with the state. Muslim marriages fall under the jurisdiction of the Syariah Court. Should a Muslim person marry a non-Muslim, their marriage would also fall under the Syariah Court. Moreover, the non-Muslim partner would then be legally bound to convert to Islam. Though there are legal provisions in Malaysia for Muslims to convert to other religions (at their own behest), in practice, virtually all the cases brought to court have failed. It is otherwise a criminal offence to convert a Muslim to any other faith.

In a nutshell:

a) Marriages between a Muslim and a non-Muslim where the latter partner does not convert to Islam are illegal and not recognized by the state.
b) Marriages of the above kind where the Muslim partner converts to the non-Muslim partner's faith are illegal and not recognized by the state.

Both these situations could also result in legal prosecution (through the Syariah Court) on the grounds of adultery (an offence under only Syariah Laws) and forced conversion of faith.

Gays, lesbians and transsexuals are barely legally or culturally recognized as members of society in Malaysia, and far from even reaching the level of discussion required to further gay marriage. Marriages between two people of the same gender are illegal and subject to legal prosecution in both the Civil and Syariah Courts.

From a personal standpoint, what this means is that in Malaysia, I would not have been able to marry my husband. If anything should happen in Malaysia legally with regards to our marriage, the courts there would probably not recognize my relationship with him. In so far as the religious courts are concerned, I am twice over in defiance of the law -- firstly, because I'm an atheist, and secondly, because I married a non-Muslim who has not converted to Islam.

It is for this reason that, when scanner_darkly and I decided to marry, we opted for a civil ceremony in San Francisco. We treasure our civil union as a special contract we have with the state that recognizes our ties to each other under the law. It is a contract above the confines of religious rulings and a right shared by all citizens of the state -- or it should be.

Both of us firmly believe Proposition 8, which was put into place late last year and renders gay marriages in California illegal, is a very real infringement of basic human rights. Based on our personal experience, we do not believe a subset of citizens should be deprived of the same rights to legal recognition and protection under the law that we enjoy as a couple. At its root, no state should divide its tax-paying citizens into separate classes of people, whether these divisions are based on religion or sexual preference.

My marriage to my husband is a treasure. It is one of the most special, and most important parts of my life. I can imagine a situation where I would not be able to openly declare my husband as a member of my family either in my community or before the law, and I don't want that. Because I can imagine having to do this, I don't want it to happen to other people.

In August, we will be celebrating our marriage at a reception in Vermont. It was put forward to us that we should start a wedding registry. However, in lieu of presents, we would both sincerely appreciate it if guests would make a small donation to Equality California to help legal efforts to fight Proposition 8 and other initiatives that deny same sex couples their rights to marry.

The diverse fabric of society should be celebrated, not quashed. Please celebrate our togetherness by helping everyone achieve the same thing.


(Deleted comment)
Jul. 7th, 2009 05:56 pm (UTC)
Thanks, Ebby. It means a lot to me that you've read this. :)

I've heard the view of folks who've held of on marrying until gay marriages were legal before, and I think that's one way of looking at this issue. However, even by doing so, straight folks can inadvertently be exerting rights and privileges that gays (and straights from other cultures) may not have.

For example, cohabitation is a contentious legal issue in numerous countries, for both straight and gay people. If straight folk get the right to cohabitate first, are they "letting the side down" by doing so?

Certain countries have strict regulations against single parents and unmarried couples, straight and gay, from adopting children. If straight persons get the right to adopt first, and make conscientious decisions to adopt children, are they "letting the side down" by taking in otherwise abandoned young people into their families?

Conscientious abstention is a hard topic, and I'm not sure there are good answers for it. There's just so many rights on which straight and gay people are unequal, and however people choose, there's always a choice that isn't 'right'.

I think the more important point is, regardless of which path a person takes, to create a safe place for love to flourish, and that means celebrating the various ways it's expressed, as well as building and finding spaces in which to do so. To tie in with the Irish Times article -- the larger point at hand should be, "Gotta marry/not marry because of a visa/children/because we have to", but, "Let's marry because we love each other."

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