Eleven years ago Sunday, marriage was breaking out all around me. Starting on May 17, 2004, the power newly vested in so many ministers and justices of the peace by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts was binding hundreds of same-sex couples in matrimony. Single, I was not among them. Sigh.
The Massachusetts weddings inspired me (just as I’m now inspired by the current fight to get the Supreme Court to legalize same-sex marriage nationwide). I knew it would be just a matter of time before I, too, a gay man, would share in the momentous spoils of the long and hard-fought battle for marriage equality. Alas, more than a decade on — despite some noble attempts — I’m still not married.
And yet I’m not alone. There are 105 million unmarried adults in the United States — that’s 44 percent of the 18-and-over population. Some are cohabiting; some are polyamorous; and some are just plain old single like me. All of us are, by and large, still considered second-class citizens.
Think about it. I sometimes find myself the recipient of the same type of backhanded sympathy I used to get as a gay person. “Oh, you just haven’t found the right mate yet” sounds a lot like “Oh, Jim, you just haven’t found the right girl.” Just as it used to be considered better to be heterosexual than homosexual, there remains the presumption that being in a couple is better than being single.
What’s wrong with being single? Nothing, unless you consider all the forms of discrimination visited upon unmarried people. Let me count the ways.
There are 1,138 of them, at least according to a 2004 report by the US Government Accountability Office. These are the federal statutory provisions in which marital status factors into determining “benefits, rights, and privileges.” They include material perks — like receiving monetary benefits through tax incentives, spousal Social Security benefits, and estate transfers — as well as privileges of love and loyalty. Consider that a married person has unquestioned visitation rights to a hospitalized spouse while an unmarried person can be barred from seeing his dearest friend at the most critical moments.
The Family and Medical Leave Act allows a married person to take time off from work to care for his or her spouse. No such right exists for an unmarried person desiring to care for the most important loved one in his life. In some jurisdictions, it can be lawful to deny an apartment rental to a man and woman who don’t possess a marriage certificate.
These are just a few of the legal issues. But there are subtler, often more insidious forms of discrimination.
In a recent op-ed, social scientist Bella M. DePaulo explained how discrimination against single people can somehow be seen as more legitimate than racism or sexism. Previous research on housing discrimination found clear attentiveness to racial bias, such that 71 percent of study participants thought that an apartment landlord was prejudiced when choosing a white tenant over an equally qualified black one who was willing to pay more. Yet in a scenario in which a landlord chose a married couple over a single applicant willing to pay more, DePaulo and coauthor Rachel Buddeberg wrote, “only 10 percent attributed the decision to bias.” In other words, prejudice against unmarried people is so much a fabric of our society that most people don’t even see it as prejudice.
So what should be done about this injustice? An organization called Unmarried Equality is one group trying to tackle the problem. The California-based nonprofit is seeking to “reignite a conversation” over fairness, says board chair Sarah Wright. Its goal is not to dismantle marriage, but to ensure that public policies are marriage-neutral.
I find that I have spent much of my adult life trying to force myself into a model of relationship that doesn’t appear to fit me. Nor does it appear to fit nearly half of adult America. As an editor in the LGBT press for more than 10 years, I’ve spilled a lot of ink helping to secure equal marriage rights. Now I ask others to join me in a new project. Or rather, an old one.
At a recent visit to The History Project, New England’s LGBT archives, I found no evidence of a push for marriage equality prior to 1986. In fact, quite the opposite. A 1970s flier from the gay activist group The Red Butterfly perhaps sums it up best: “ . . . what gay men and women, as well as others, should demand is freedom from being forced to mold their lives after a rigid, and strictly historical, family structure.” Amen.
I invite all of us — gay, straight, married, polyamorous, and single — to not forget this vision of equality. Let’s ensure that all forms of human relations are affirmed and recognized. That no one is denied access to his closest and dearest. That no one is considered second-class. Not one single person.
BEING SINGLE: THE COSTS OF HEALTH SPENDING, HOUSING, AND MORE
$484,368 to $1,022,096 — Estimated additional amount a single woman will pay than a married one over 60 years
Source: “The High Price of Being Single in America,” The Atlantic
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