LAST MARCH, I came home after work and found my husband, Peter Dubuque, dead from an unexpected accident. We had been together for almost fifteen years. Because we live in Massachusetts, we were able to marry four-and-a-half years ago. In the aftermath of an unexpected death, the surviving spouse faces a jumble of legal responsibilities, emotional reactions, and practical considerations. At 42, I never expected to find myself planning a memorial service for the 39-year-old love of my life. I’m very fortunate to have a strong national and local network of love and support from friends and family.
In 2004, when marriage equality took effect in Massachusetts, opponents predicted social disaster. Of course, the destruction of our social fabric never materialized. What has suprised me, though, is how marriage equality in Massachusetts has quickly blended into the social landscape. Despite a few feeble and ineffectual protests from the extreme Right, it has become a non-issue here. Just how far marriage equality has become a regular component of society here has been made clear to me while interacting with people I didn’t know. In decades past, authority figures were often adversarial to the queer community. Now, in 2009, the EMTs, police officers, and detectives on the accident scene were extremely professional, respectful, and courteous.
Referring to Peter as my husband doesn’t raise eyebrows or result in scorn or sarcasm, whereas referring to him as my partner ten or fifteen years ago carried the risk of bad service, indifference, or outright hostility. Customer service reps at places like banks respect the terminology, whereas once we might have sheepishly referred to “my partner.” Twelve years ago something as simple as explaining to utility companies that two people weren’t roommates but “significant others” could be construed as being “in your face.” Flash forward to the young associate at the Apple store who helped me with Peter’s iPhone. Sexual orientation was irrelevant as he expressed sincere condolences for my loss.
Over five years ago, people in my situation in Massachusetts would have faced prejudicial treatment in some of these interactions—in addition to having to deal with protracted legal issues because of not being married—because marriage equality was an unknown quantity. Coming of age at a time when AIDS felled so many so quickly, I was aware of many heart-wrenching stories in which the surviving partner was completely shut out and cast aside by next of kin. For all the wonderful things that marriage equality does for the living, it maintains our dignity in death.
The legal right to have been married that was so important to us in life has turned out to be equally important in death. I am thankful for the all of the couples, lawyers, advocates, and judges who have put so much energy into this struggle over the past many years, and to those who continue to do so until the goal of federally recognized marriage equality is met.
Just since Peter died, wonderful news about marriage equality has come out of Iowa, Vermont, Maine, and New Hampshire. I know Peter would have been overjoyed by this news, and this makes me happy. Still, these half-dozen states are only a beginning. We must stop letting those who oppose marriage equality frame the debate. The objections they raise are refuted by our experience here in Massachusetts, where this new reality has settled in and none of their fears has materialized.
Steven R. Kleinedler is supervising editor of The American Heritage Dictionary, published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. This piece is adapted from an essay that appeared on americablog.com.