On Inequality

learning by going

The night before my son was born, my wife and I were in the hospital at the beginning of a very long process. It was June 24, 2011, and the New York state legislature was preparing for a vote on a bill that would legalize same-sex marriage in our adopted home state. The timing was pretty remarkable. My wife and I have been married since 2008, when our immediate families joined us at City Hall in Toronto, Ontario for our wedding. It was a funny limbo to live in, to be married in Canada, but not at home in New York. When we drove into Massachusetts, and said “married!” it often caused us to chuckle darkly. It’s weird enough to be able to buy beer in grocery stores in one state and not another, but to have your own family status legally change based on state boundaries is beyond weird.

The vote in the legislature was going to be close, and both of us had contacted our state senator, Steven Saland, a Republican, to state our hopes that he would vote for equality. In fact, I had called that very day while my wife packed up the last of her things for the hospital. I felt as though he might not even believe me, leaving a voice mail saying, “I’d like my son to be born to two married parents and you could make this happen.”

Of course, the ending of this story is well known.  The bill did in fact pass, and Senator Saland was one of the swing votes. His wife of forty-six years, according to him, “certainly lobbied him,” reported the New York Daily News. How fitting that my marriage was legally recognized partially because of the bond and influence within another marriage?

The moment when the bill passed, as we were up late in the hospital room felt almost ethereal.  Our son was about to enter the world at a remarkable moment in history, and not just History-with-a-capital-H but in our personal history. It felt fated, and I don’t feel that way very often, but even my cynicism couldn’t deny a certain sense of destiny.

Now that a year has passed, however, I no longer feel the blissful surprise of the legislature’s decision. I’m not satisfied with feeling as though I only have a handful of states in this country I can ever live in, with so many others officially off limits (I’m not taking that particular step backward). I realize how quickly this year passed and I know that the years will keep flying by and soon my son will have questions.

There’s no easy way to explain inequality. Why do some people have so much and others so little? Why do women still not make as much money as men for the same jobs? I teach Elie Wiesel’s Night to tenth graders every year and there’s always at least one who asks, “but why?” as the concept of a Jewish ghetto is introduced.  I have honed an answer to that question over time, but it never feels convincing. How will I explain to my son that our state sees us as a family, but our country does not?

I suppose I could show him all of the various tax returns that we had to have prepared: separate federal returns (which mean that my wife, in the eyes of the federal government, is a single mother), a joint “dummy” federal return to inform state returns, and a joint New York return.  I could explain that many people have had to endure a lack of family equality for as long as the United States has existed. We could talk about the Loving v. Virginia decision that will likely inform any decision the Supreme Court makes on the issue.

Fortunately for me, our little boy is not yet concerned with such things, not when there is water to splash and trucks to make go “vroom-vroom.” Someday, though, he will be. I am grateful to Governor Cuomo and New York’s lawmakers for validating our family and setting an example for the rest of the country, but I hope that this inequality, one that is anathema to what I believe to be “American,” is rectified before today’s children are adults who are appalled by the generations before.