I have written about my marriage and about words periodically in this blog, and yesterday’s ruling on the legality of same-sex marriage by the Iowa Supreme Court is a good occasion to explore both topics simultaneously. I would like to clarify why re-defining marriage is important for same-sex couples, and specifically why the word “marriage” is more sought-after than something else like “civil union.” It is a worthwhile exercise, and you don’t have to be pro-gay-marriage or anti-gay-marriage in order to think through these issues.

If you haven’t read it, you should take a look at the text of the Iowa court decision, and I think they’ve done a remarkably thorough job (and pretty succinct if you skip legal notes and precedents). I have also posted a guide to reading the ruling, if you’d like some help.

What follows is just a linguistic experiment. I haven’t interviewed all my lesbian and gay friends who are in relationships or who have children, and so this think-piece is just my opinion. Let’s look at same-sex marriage and the reasons for it, for starters. It sees to me that there are two, sometimes distinct, and sometimes overlapping, reasons we need to consider.

The first is the social justice angle, sort of a gay-power angle that argues that any separate-but-equal treatment, while perhaps technically legal, de-legitimizes a group of people and they want legitimacy. The second reason is less visible and certainly more mundane, but very practical reason: that tax, insurance, and other benefits afforded to married couples are being withheld from gay parents and couples, and thus the practice is horribly unfair.

The question about the term “marriage” versus “civilly-recognized union” is tricky on one level and easy on another. I think the Iowa court decision makes it crystal clear that church marriage is a religious affair in which the court has no interest, and Iowa civil marriage is a contract in which the court has total interest. I suppose you could call them two different things, which would satisfy the second reason (above) but not the first. You could call them both “marriage” and understand that they’re two different things. You could call religious marriage “marriage” and label civil marriage something like “civil marriage.” You could call civil marriage “marriage” and give religious marriage its own label, like “religious union,” and you’d have the same thing.

However, language creates a large part of reality, and the “neutral” term for something (like marriage) is anything but neutral, as it’s imbued with history, power, and preference, so that “marriage” becomes the natural, normal, and unassailable terminology, with all alternatives almost invisible within such terminology. But add an adjective to make it “gay marriage” or “civil marriage” and you have automatically pointed out its difference from the norm. By calling attention to the “specialness” of gay- or civil- marriage, those in the “special” institution will always be singled out as being abnormal and somewhat illegitimate.

It must, then, come down to the issue of legitimacy, I think, especially if society is prepared to recognize civil unions (for both gay and straight couples). On the criterion of legal protections, above, the distinction between civil unions and marriage can work, but on the other criterion of recognition and legitimacy, as long as long as “marriage” is the neutral (and blessed) terminology, the legitimacy of civil unions will always be in question, as will the human-ness of those in those unions.

The neutrality of the first criterion breaks down if we consider straight civil unions. I would note that fully half of my straight friends were married in civil ceremonies and bypassed church marriages altogether, and they aren’t required to call themselves anything special, and are given all social and legal benefits of “marriage.” In other words, even though a priest did not marry them, the state married them, and they are called “married.”

Unless our society wants to insist that all these marriages are invalid unless blessed by a priest, or if we want to insist that civil unions may not use the word “marriage” to describe their state of matrimonial bliss, I think it’s demonstrably the case that society already understands that marriages are civil, and that religious blessing is icing on the wedding cake: legitimacy and recognition beyond the state, but under the eyes of a congregation, family, and perhaps God. It’s very special if you belong to a religious organization, and we really might consider using an adjective to denote that specialness, so that while the word “marriage” describes all states of matrimony, “religious union” is a special term reserved for those married couples who have gone the extra step to have their civil union sanctioned by their church.

Here are my notes on highlights of the Iowa Supreme Court ruling, along with some relevant quotations. You should read the whole thing yourself, of course, but I thought a cheat-sheet about which sections you could skip and which ones you really must read would be helpful.

7-11 on why marriage is important to everyone

11-16 on the responsibility of the court (very eloquent)

16-18 looking at previous court decisions that the citizenry didn’t like, but were the right thing to do,

28 ending with no-nonsense reasoning for the plaintiffs

Therefore, with respect to the subject and purposes of Iowa’s marriage laws, we find that the plaintiffs are similarly situated compared to heterosexual persons. Plaintiffs are in committed and loving relationships, many raising families, just like heterosexual couples. Moreover, official recognition of their status provides an institutional basis for defining their fundamental relational rights and responsibilities, just as it does for heterosexual couples. Society benefits, for example, from providing samesex couples a stable framework within which to raise their children and the power to make health care and end-of-life decisions for loved ones, just as it does when that framework is provided for opposite-sex couples. In short, for purposes of Iowa’s marriage laws, which are designed to bring a sense of order to the legal relationships of committed couples and their families in myriad ways, plaintiffs are similarly situated in every important respect, but for their sexual orientation.

29-49 background on LGBTQ issues and equal protection considerations (I’d skip it if I were you, unless you’re a lawyer)

49, section H through the end — a point-by-point rebuttal of the government’s argument against same-sex marriage (must read)

a. 52 maintaining traditional marriage (govt’s argument is circular reasoning, and thus invalid)

b. 54 Promotion of optimal environment to raise children.

If the marriage statute was truly focused on optimal parenting, many classifications of people would be excluded, not merely gay and lesbian people.” and “The ban on same-sex civil marriage can only logically be justified as a means to ensure the asserted optimal environment for raising children if fewer children will be raised within same-sex relationships or more children will be raised in dual-gender marriages. Yet, the same-sex-marriage ban will accomplish these outcomes only when people in same-sex relationships choose not to raise children without the benefit of marriage or when children are adopted by dual-gender couples who would have been adopted by same-sex couples but for the same-sex civil marriage ban. We discern no substantial support for this proposition.

c. 59 promotion of procreation.

Conceptually, the promotion of procreation as an objective of marriage is compatible with the inclusion of gays and lesbians within the definition of marriage. Gay and lesbian persons are capable of procreation. Thus, the sole conceivable avenue by which exclusion of gay and lesbian people from civil marriage could promote more procreation is if the unavailability of civil marriage for same-sex partners caused homosexual individuals to “become” heterosexual in order to procreate within the present traditional institution of civil marriage. The briefs, the record, our research, and common sense do not suggest such an outcome.

d. 60 promoting stability in opposite-sex relationships.

While the institution of civil marriage likely encourages stability in opposite-sex relationships, we must evaluate whether excluding gay and lesbian people from civil marriage encourages stability in oppositesex relationships. The County offers no reasons that it does, and we can find none.

e. 60 conservation of resources. (very interesting arguent by the government).

The argument is based on a simple premise: couples who are married enjoy numerous governmental benefits, so the state’s fiscal burden associated with civil marriage is reduced if less people are allowed to marry. In the common sense of the word, then, it is “rational” for the legislature to seek to conserve state resources by limiting the number of couples allowed to form civil marriages.

And yes, marriage reduces tax revenues and costs the state something. But…

Excluding any group from civil marriage—African-Americans, illegitimates, aliens, even red-haired individuals—would conserve state resources in an equally “rational” way. Yet, such classifications so obviously offend our society’s collective sense of equality that courts have not hesitated to provide added protections against such inequalities.

63 Religious Opposition. This is forbidden in the Iowa constitution, but we think it probably was the real reason for the unconstitional law instead of the 5 reasons given above. But religious institutions hold very different opinions about same-sex marriage:

This contrast of opinions in our society largely explains the absence of any religion-based rationale to test the constitutionality of Iowa’s same-sex marriage ban.


The statute at issue in this case does not prescribe a definition of marriage for religious institutions. Instead, the statute declares, “Marriage is a civil contract” and then regulates that civil contract. Iowa Code § 595A.1. Thus, in pursuing our task in this case, we proceed as civil judges, far removed from the theological debate of religious clerics, and focus only on the concept of civil marriage and the state licensing system that identifies a limited class of persons entitled to secular rights and benefits associated with civil marriage.

and the conclusion that religious institutions may define religious marriage any way they want to, but the state treats civil marriage as a contract, and that’s the only marriage the state is considering, page 66:

In the final analysis, we give respect to the views of all Iowans on the issue of same-sex marriage—religious or otherwise—by giving respect to our constitutional principles. These principles require that the state recognize both opposite-sex and same-sex civil marriage. Religious doctrine and views contrary to this principle of law are unaffected, and people can continue to associate with the religion that best reflects their views. A religious denomination can still define marriage as a union between a man and a woman, and a marriage ceremony performed by a minister, priest, rabbi, or other person ordained or designated as a leader of the person’s religious faith does not lose its meaning as a sacrament or other religious institution. The sanctity of all religious marriages celebrated in the future will have the same meaning as those celebrated in the past. The only difference is civil marriage will now take on a new meaning that reflects a more complete understanding of equal protection of the law. This result is what our constitution requires.

When it’s over
and the energy has faded, barely lingering like the faint twilight colors on the encroaching black night sky,
and the tears have dried, leaving little dusty trails on the cheeks and wads of tissue discarded in little piles around the house,
and the feelings have become muted — pale, yellowed pages in an old newspaper that someone saved for a now-unknown reason,
and the clutter of the wreckage has been swept into the gutters and ditches of your consciousness,

Then comes a feeling of detachment and otherworldliness
where this house is no longer recognizable as your home, but just some building that someone inhabits,
and these hands belong to someone else, no longer yours,
and these works — some complete and some barely conceived — are as foreign to you as some dusty book on the library shelf,
and these thoughts, once bubbling and unstoppable, seem out of place like the muffled rantings of delusion at a bus stop.

Is it over?

Dim alien dreams overlay a cloudy native history, rendering all unknowable, unrecognizable.
The past is burned away, leaving a stark landscape of black promise.

Being told that I’ve had it relatively easy because of money or power grates against my internal sense of having worked really, really hard on myself in order to survive my transsexual transition and suggests that I’ve been able to buy or bully myself out of trouble. A third term, Luck, completes the trio of dismissive terms, and I would like to explore what’s so wrong about being lucky.

For the ancient Greeks, the concept of luck was embodied in Tykhe:

Tykhe was the goddess or spirit of fortune, chance, providence and fate. She was usually honoured in a more favourable light as Eutykhia, goddess of good fortune, luck, success and prosperity.

Tykhe was represented with different attributes. Holding a rudder, she was conceived as the divinity guiding and conducting the affairs of the world, and in this respect she was called one of the Moirai (Fates); with a ball she represented the varying unsteadiness of fortune — unsteady and capable of rolling in any direction; with Ploutos or the horn of Amalthea, she was the symbol of the plentiful gifts of fortune.

Nemesis (Fair Distribution) was cautiously regarded as the downside of Tykhe, one who provided a check on extravagant favours conferred by fortune.

For Tykhe or Nemesis, the concept of luck is either random or divine and doesn’t have much to do with the deeds, intelligence, or strategy undertaken by someone. No matter her personal qualities, the recipient of luck has no part to play.

Sometimes, when people say, “You’re lucky,” I am left with the impression not unlike the ancient Greek idea, that my hard work, communications, therapy take a back seat to chance. In other words, this transition might have turned out disastrously, regardless of my efforts or qualities.

And maybe that’s true, but I simply don’t think it’s good policy to believe in such things because they remove agency and responsibility from the transitioner, who is tempted to ask, “Why go to therapy — it’s all fate, anyway.”

Why tell a transsexual she’s lucky, in any case? What’s the effect of saying such a thing? True or not, it’s going to feel to the transsexual that she’s being dismissed, that what you’re saying is that their transition is somehow not as hard as it might have been. Pointing to money, power, and luck suggests that a good transsexual transition is almost predestined if you have enough of one, two, or all three things, and conversely, that a transsexual is doomed without them.

Not that there’s anything wrong with having these things, of course. It’s good to be lucky, to have some money, and to be powerful. But if you come to rely on them, then luck, money, and power become paradoxically disempowering because they trump hope, and hope is what’s in short supply when a transsexual finally faces her demons and realizes she must take action. I’ve been there, and let me tell you that no cushy balance in the checkbook, no collected power over others’ lives, and no track record of good luck makes any difference to one facing the daunting task of transsexual transition. Hard work and a belief that such hard work will get us through our transition are the only things that really have an impact on a transsexual transition, as far as I can see.

I have always bristled at such dismissive observations, even those that fall outside of this transition crisis of the past couple of years. When I used to be told, “Of course you did well in college — you always had it easy,” I felt as if my reading and studying and struggling with academic concepts weren’t worth recognizing. These days, comments like “It’s no wonder you’ve had such a good transition — you’re in the protective walls of a university” diminish the struggle that my friends and colleagues and I have had in understanding and accepting my changes. While it is certainly true doing well in college or surviving transsexual transition are facts of my life, I don’t believe in predestination, and I certainly do not believe that having power or working in the right industry will inevitably smooth over all life’s difficulties.

Maybe this essay is just a cry for you to “look at me” and appreciate me. You already know how painful and difficult my past couple of years were, and so I don’t need you to acknowledge it again. But I really want to know how we can ever learn from each other through honest criticism and praise if money, luck, and power obstruct us or cause us to reduce hard work and struggle into predetermined outcomes.