No Presents, Please

No Presents, Please

The only thing more absurd than the wedding gift the British government just gave Katha Pollitt is the fact that our government denies gays such benefits.


Alot of people–friends, family, even a few readers–congratulated me when I got married this spring. But do you know who was really thrilled? The British government. Steven, my husband, is English, you see, and thanks to his many years of university teaching, he gets a government pension. To my great astonishment, it turns out that when I retire I’ll get one too. (Mine will be a girl-sized 60 percent of his.) Leave aside that I am much too young–ahem!–to even think about retiring, and hope never to do so no matter how old I get or how many readers write in to complain.

The point is, merely because I agreed to become Steven’s legal wife, the British government is ready to shower me with checks for the rest of my life. This is money that I have done absolutely nothing to earn. Barring a handful of articles in The London Review of Books and the Guardian, I’ve made no contribution to the economy of the United Kingdom. I haven’t raised British children, run a British household using British consumer products, become a British subject or paid more than a few pence in British taxes. If you think of the traditional wifely economic role as facilitating a husband’s employment, I haven’t done that either! By the time I met him, Steven was teaching in New York and facilitating himself quite nicely.

No, there is no way to understand my pension except as a big fat wedding present. British taxpayers should be furious that their hard-earned pounds are going to a comfortably self-supporting American. Let her buy her own gin and lime! Our American Social Security system offers a similar, if less generous, gift to aged newlyweds, by the way: I get the equivalent of 50 percent of my husband’s Social Security benefits (100 percent should I survive him), but only if I don’t get benefits based on my own employment record.

I mention my new pension rights for several reasons. One is to point out the absurdity of the rationale for confining marriage to heterosexual couples. Obviously, the right to marry does not depend on the capacity to procreate or society’s interest in creating warm nests for children–Steven and I both procreated with other people, and our children are no longer nestlings. (As for civilizing the raging single man, which George Gilder and others argue is the crucial job of wives, Steven is already the mildest, most civic-minded of men. I’m probably a bad influence!) Marriage may or may not make for a soberer, stabler society, but you get society’s wedding presents whether or not your own particular marriage fits the bill. And gay people never get those gifts, even though they too have children–at least a million kids, perhaps as many as 6 million, are currently living in gay families–and can benefit from stable households. Surely they too can use more money when they retire. So far, no one has been able to explain logically why gays should be barred from wedlock and its many privileges.

Don’t look for enlightenment from Judge Robert Smith of the New York State Court of Appeals, who wrote the remarkably confused and dithery majority opinion upholding the state’s right to ban gay marriage. “Plaintiffs have not persuaded us that this long-accepted restriction is a wholly irrational one, based solely on ignorance and prejudice against homosexuals,” he wrote, going on to offer the non sequitur that because the majority of children are born to hetero couples, and because marriage promotes stability, the state was justified in privileging those marriages. Gay “couples can become parents by adoption, or by artificial insemination or other technological marvels, but they do not become parents as a result of accident or impulse. The Legislature could find that unstable relationships between people of the opposite sex present a greater danger that children will be born into or grow up in unstable homes than is the case with same-sex couples, and thus that promoting stability in opposite-sex relationships will help children more.” So straights need marriage because they’re irresponsible breeders, naturally wild and crazy? And gays can’t marry because they think before they procreate? What happened to the old idea that gays shouldn’t be allowed to wed because they are promiscuous perverts?

Judge Smith’s second reason is that children do better with a mother and a father. “Intuition and experience suggest that a child benefits from having before his or her eyes, every day, living models of what both a man and a woman are like.” You’d think gay parents were living in caves on the moon, with no opposite-sex relatives or friends or ex-spouses. Even if the judge was right (though the American Academy of Pediatrics says kids do fine in gay households), gay families are here. The question is whether New York State should be allowed to discriminate against them.

What Judge Smith can’t articulate is why letting gays marry would have a bad effect on straights, on kids, on the institution of marriage. That’s because it wouldn’t have any effect at all. As Chief Justice Judith Kaye dryly noted in her dissent, “There are enough marriage licenses to go around.” All this fussing about stability and children is just a smokescreen for a deep emotional, irrational aversion to homosexuality.

The most unfortunate victims of the current marital system aren’t even gay couples–after all, they have each other, and in many states civil union and domestic partnerships as well. It’s single people. For outmoded historical reasons, our society makes marriage the key to a host of social goods, from health insurance and death benefits to the right to make medical decisions for a loved one–and get a last-minute pension like my own. That system was always inadequate, and today it makes no sense at all. Everybody needs health insurance, not just the spouses and marital children of workers lucky enough to have a job that provides it. Everyone needs a decent old age. Tony Blair should take my pension and bestow it on a single mother, or a never-married woman facing a pinched retirement thanks to the job discrimination that kept her wages low.

I’ll be happy to pay for my own gin and lime.

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