Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Taking Sex out of Marriage

You believe in the ballot,
You believe in reform.
You have faith in the elephant and jackass,
And to you, solidarity's a four-letter word.

No, I won't take your hand,
And marry the State,
'Cause baby, I'm an anarchist,
And you're a spineless liberal.
I'm not one of those people who won't shut up about how they were a fan of whatever band back before they were famous—those people are terrible; I couldn't agree more—but I was totally a fan of Against Me! back before they were famous.

And I've remained a fan, though it's not easy to explain why. (I've learned from Pandora that bands "similar to" Against Me! are, by and large, bands that produce music suitable only for blasting into the compounds of holed-up dictators and cult leaders.) A lot of it, undoubtedly, is their lyrics, which tend to kind of speed up or slow down or just abruptly stop, according to the rhythm of the song, because otherwise they wouldn't quite fit. It doesn't seem like it should work, but somehow it does, and it adds a thick layer of honesty to everything they record, because why would the words be so forced if they weren't chosen for a reason?

But none of this is to say that I wasn't just as surprised as everyone else by the recent announcement that Against Me! has a new frontwoman, Laura Jane Grace.[1]

It's fascinating for a number of reasons. Here's one of them:
Gabel will eventually take the name Laura Jane Grace, and will remain married to her wife Heather. "For me, the most terrifying thing about this was how she would accept the news," says Gabel. "But she's been super-amazing and understanding."
I'm not especially interested in delving into their personal lives (aside from, you know, the one immensely personal thing at the center of all this), but Grace and her wife live in Florida, which first banned same-sex marriage in 1977, then banned it some more with the Florida Defense of Marriage Act in 1997, and then found a way to ban it even more in 2008, when the voters added this to the state constitution:
Inasmuch as marriage is the legal union of only one man and one woman as husband and wife, no other legal union that is treated as marriage or the substantial equivalent thereof shall be valid or recognized.
Does that mean Heather and Laura (when/if all the physical and legal hurdles are cleared) will find themselves in an illegal same-sex marriage? Apparently not:[2]
Though Florida is not one of the six states in the nation that recognize marriages between same-sex partners, Gabel's declaration won't change her marital status either way, according to Lisa Mottet, Director of the Transgender Civil Rights Project at the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force.

"Under established law, marriages are evaluated for their validity at the time of marriage, i.e., the date of the wedding/when the marriage license was signed," she said. "Only divorces, death, and annulments end marriages — gender transition does not end a marriage, nor convert it to a same-sex marriage. If two people were considered different sex at the time of their wedding, they will continue to be considered married until death, divorce, or annulment."
It's funny, in a sort of horrible way. Florida has tried so hard to do away with same-sex marriage, and they still can't quite do it. In fact, it turns out it doesn't matter if the couple gets married before the transition or after—as the law stands today, a transwoman (i.e. male-to-female) can always marry a woman in Florida, but never a man. And a transman can always marry a man, but never a woman.

That precedent comes from Kantaras v. Kantaras, a bitter custody battle that was litigated at various levels of the court system for seven years until finally—finally—Dr. Phil stepped in and settled the whole thing. But not before the Florida Second District Court of Appeal ruled that the marriage was void ab initio—legally, it had never existed—because legally, this guy was a woman.

More precisely, the court deferred to the legislature:
Until the Florida legislature recognizes sex-reassignment procedures and amends the marriage statutes to clarify the marital rights of a postoperative transsexual person, we must adhere to the common meaning of the statutory terms and invalidate any marriage that is not between persons of the opposite sex determined by their biological sex at birth.
The same legislature, by the way, that had made it possible for Michael Kantaras to change his name, change the sex on his birth certificate, obtain a male driver's license and a male passport, and become the legal adoptive father of his children. And the same legislature that, by that point, had banned same-sex marriage twice. Clearly, what they wanted was for Michael Kantaras to marry a man instead of a woman.

What is the goal here, anyway? The legislatures that enacted Florida's marriage statutes in 1977 and 1997; the nearly five million Floridians who voted for Amendment 2 in 2008; the lawmakers and voters responsible for dozens of similar laws and constitutional amendments across the country—were they all engaged in a concerted effort to make transgender marriage a strange patchwork of contradiction and injustice?

No, they just didn't care. It's all about gay marriage. That the transgender legal situation is such a mess is merely collateral damage.

Granted, if lawmakers and voters did take on transgender marriage directly, I can't say I'd be all that optimistic about how it would go,[3] but at least we'd be talking about the broader consequences of legislating. And at least we'd be confronting the reality that, by drawing the line between opposite-sex and same-sex, we're making the false presumption that sex is easy to define.

So if nothing else, a change in semantics is in order. Maybe the end result would be the same regardless, but the fight shouldn't be for legalizing same-sex marriage. It should be for taking sex out of marriage altogether.[4]

In conclusion…

1. A note on names and pronouns: There are countless style guides and media kits and what-not out there, and I ignore pretty much all of them. My rules are, use the name and pronoun the person would prefer; if it's not clear, guess, and try not to be a jerk about it; and resolve any lingering uncertainty in favor of what will be more accurate in the future, because whatever it is I'm writing, it will be read by a lot more people in the future than in the past.
    (If you're at all curious about how muddled and combative these debates can get, even (or perhaps especially) among the well-intentioned, check out the talk section of Grace's Wikipedia page. After a while I started just staring blankly as I scrolled down. Pretty sure I caught a "cissexist" in there somewhere.)
2. This has to be the first time I've been to in at least a decade. Naturally, it was because they were the ones who bothered to track down an answer to an interesting and tricky legal question. If you read on in the article you'll find expressions of support for Grace from Tegan and Sara, Senses Fail, Broadway Calls, Toxicbreed, I Am the Avalanche, Motel Life, Circa Survive, Gaslight Anthem, CM Punk, and Fun.. I haven't looked into how many of those are actual things. I'm guessing about half.
3. Not optimistic in the short term, that is. But eventually it'll seem ridiculous that we even had to argue about this. As a friend tweeted after the North Carolina vote last week:
Voters in NC are not bigots, rednecks, or evil. They're just wrong. Love will overcome all, it always has.
4. If this blog were a hacky stand-up comedian or an unimaginative sitcom, there would be a lame joke here. Good thing it isn't.


  1. Just to make sure that this whole issue is good and muddy(ad absurdum even): hermaphrodites. That is all.

  2. Right, or intersex, if you want to be PC (and I try to be from time to time). Next time I have a free month, I'll write about some of the issues there.