A week ago, I told you that I had gone to the dentist (a new dentist, and that fact is a component of this story) and found myself nonplussed by several questions on the new-patient form asking whom to contact in case of emergency, and whom I designate to receive medical information about me. Both questions asked me to specify the relationship of these designees to myself.
As I told you a week ago, I left one of those spaces blank (that is, I did not designate a relationship), and in the other, I wrote, "friend" — though the person I designated to receive information or to be my emergency contact was, of course, Steve. My husband.
The primary point I wanted to make in telling you that story is that, all across the U.S., as barriers to same-sex civil marriage fall, people are being placed in legal limbo, when they marry after those barriers fall, but their state then stays same-sex marriages — and questions are raised about the legal status of those who have married when the opportunity to marry arose. In some states, for instance, there have been battles about adoption rights of legally married same-sex couples, or about the right of those couples to designate children they already have as the children of both parents. There have also been battles about Social Security benefits.
A gay couple can marry in Massachusetts, and one spouse can then be refused to be allowed to see his husband in the hospital in Alabama as the husband dies. The will of the spouse who has died can name his husband as his beneficiary, and the state of Alabama can then add insult to injury and refuse to accord the will legal standing.
The point I want to highlight here is, quite simply, that people are being placed in situations of needless suffering by the patchwork-quilt, states'-rights way in which we in the U.S. continue to approach the question of marriage rights for LGBT citizens. What may apply legally in one state does not necessarily apply legally in another state.
People may have rights here. But they may not enjoy those rights there.
This results in confusion, and some of us live that confusion: we live in the place of that confusion; it resides in the center of our lives and relationships. And we face it when we arrive, distracted by obligations of caring for guests, worn down from months of fighting to obtain a dental appointment (if we have new, government-subvented health insurance that most dentists do not want to honor), and sit down to fill out a form that invites us to declare our relationship to a spouse who may nor may not be legally recognized as our spouse in the limbo period through which we are now living in some parts of the U.S.
As I told you a week ago, I made an on-the-spot decision to skirt the questions about my relationship to the person I designated to receive medical or emergency information about me. I frankly did not want to be bothered. Not then. On top of everything else, I had arrived about 10 minutes late, because the new dental office to which I was going for this first appointment has two different addresses online, and when I called both numbers to verify the correct address as I drove to the dentist, neither answered.
I went to one office, and the door was fast shut. I then drove to the next. It had a sign taped onto the door, telling me to go to yet a third address. By this point, I had left two voicemail messages at the dentist's office, telling the assistant please to call and let me know the correct address — and that I was on the way and trying to arrive on time.
I didn't want to be bothered with prying questions from complete strangers who might or might not be predisposed to treat me as a human being. I also didn't want to expose myself to the possibility of harassment by placing in the hands of those strangers some kind of quasi-legal tool with which to harass me, if they were so disposed.
And so I took what may have been the slacker's way out of the dilemma that suddenly confronted me as I arrived at the dentist's office, making a snap judgment that was not perhaps an ideal one under less than ideal circumstances. Then, after I had shared this story with you here, several readers — notably Chris Morley and Alan McCornick — challenged me to think more deeply about ramifications of the choice I had made, particularly about how my decision might affect Steve.
And about my obligation to stand up for what I believe in and what I know is right, even when standing up requires me to grow an on-the-spot spine . . . . About my obligation not only to blab on and on about human rights and moral courage, but to exhibit my own lived commitment to the ideals I profess . . . .
And so an update: I did listen to you, Chris and Alan. Two days ago, I had to return to have a tooth filled.
When I arrived at the dentist's office (this time, on-time, since I now knew the location of the office), I asked to be given the paperwork I had filled out on my first visit. I wrote "spouse" in both of the blanks I had skirted on the previous visit.
I handed the form back to the receptionist. She busied herself making the corrections. "How is Steve's last name spelled?" she asked me, as she typed.
And that was that.
The graphic is from the Fabulous Quotes site.