Why Not Plural Marriage?

First published at 365gay.com on March 23, 2009

Recent discussions of various civil-union proposals have revived some familiar questions, including “Why limit such recognition to couples, as opposed to larger groups?” and “Why limit it to romantic/sexual couples, as opposed to other interdependent relationships?”

Such questions come from various quarters, including both friends and foes of marriage equality. Although they’re sometimes offered as “gotcha” challenges, they deserve serious reflection.

I was mulling them over recently when two events occurred that hinted at an answer.

The first was a phone call from my home-security monitoring company about a false alarm I triggered with smoke from a minor kitchen disaster.

“While we have you on the phone,” the operator suggested, “can we update your emergency numbers?”

“Sure,” I said, remembering that some of my listed neighbors had eliminated their land lines.

After going through the numbers, she said, “So, you’ve given me your community patrol number, and numbers for Scott, Sarah, and Mike—all neighbors. But this Mark person—what’s your relationship to him?”

“He’s my partner.”

“Um, roommate?”

“No,” I replied, “partner.”

“I don’t have a box for ‘partner,'” she retorted. “I have a box for ‘roommate.'”

“Fine,” I said, “roommate.” Then I hastily hung up and returned to the kitchen, since I didn’t want my “roommate” to come home to a burned dinner. (Later, I regretted not asking for, and insisting on, the box for “husband.”)

The second event occurred not long afterward, when my high school called asking for a donation for their “Torch Fund” endowment.

Some background: I attended Chaminade, an all-boys Catholic prep school on Long Island. For years I notified them of my various milestones for their newsletter, and for years they declined to publish anything gay-related—publications, awards, whatever—despite their regular listings of the most insipid details of my classmates’ lives.

So now, whenever they ask me for money, I politely tell them where they can stick their Torch. I did so again this time.

“I understand,” the caller replied. “But while I have you on the phone, let me update your records…”

Here we go again, I thought.

Eventually she came to, “Any update in your marital status? Can we list a spouse?”

“Well, you CAN,” I responded testily, “but I suspect you won’t. My spouse’s name is Mark.”

“Why not?” she replied, seeming unfazed. “And his last name?”

I doubt his listing will stand long. But what interested me was this: here was someone representing my conservative high school, and she had a box—in her mind, anyway—for my same-sex spouse.

For all I know, she might be a paid solicitor with no other connection to the school. But she illustrates a significant cultural shift toward recognizing the reality of gay and lesbian lives.

The reality is this: like our straight counterparts, we tend to fall in love, pair off and settle down. It’s not for everyone, but it’s a significant enough pattern to merit acknowledgement.

And that’s at least the germ of an answer to the questions raised above.

Why do we give special legal recognition to romantic pair-bonds? We do so because they’re a significant—and very common—human category, for straights and gays alike. They benefit individuals and society in palpable ways—ways that, on average, “roommates” and most other groupings can’t match.

To put it simply, we recognize them because it makes sense for the law to recognize common and valuable ways that people organize their lives.

Of course, there are other significant human relationships. Some of these, like blood ties, the law already acknowledges. Others (like polygamy) pose serious social costs.

Still others may deserve more legal recognition than they currently receive, or may be dealt with on a case-by-case basis. (I doubt that we need to change marriage or civil-union law to accommodate unrelated cohabitating spinsters, for example.)

But none of these other unrecognized relationships holds a candle to same-sex pair-bonds when it comes to widespread mismatch between the social reality and the legal recognition.

Which brings me back to Mark. Mark is not just some dude I share expenses with. He’s the person I’ve committed my life to, for better or for worse, ’til death do us part. We exchanged such vows publicly, although the law still views us as strangers.

In short, he is—whether the law or our home-security company recognizes it—my spouse.

We fall in love, we pair off, we build lives together. The law may be a blunt instrument, but it need not be so blunt as to call that “roommates.”