The Significance of a Simple Ring

By Jay Parr

A few months ago, I was at a training seminar when I observed that the main presenter was wearing a wedding ring. I didn’t think much about it, not consciously anyway, but I realized later that somewhere at a deeply subconscious, perhaps even unconscious level, I had made a whole set of assumptions about him based solely on that little piece of metal. I assumed he had a wife, of course. Given his age, I assumed the likelihood of children, probably in elementary school, or maybe in high school if they had gotten started young. I assumed all the trappings of the suburban middle-class academic’s life: A house with a mortgage and a lawn, a couple of modest but versatile cars, a household balancing the various pressures of work and home life, quiet evenings at home in front of the tube, subtle jokes about having become boring homebodies … sound familiar? Yeah, me too.

But then it came up later in the seminar that he was not married. Not legally, anyway. Not in North Carolina. He couldn’t have been, because he was in a committed relationship with another man.

I felt cheated. I felt as if he had violated some sort of social contract by wearing that ring. For that one visceral moment I felt as if he had committed some egregious act of deception. He had completely misrepresented himself to me, as if he were some meth-dealing pimp coached by his defense attorney to cut his hair and wear a suit, glasses, and a wedding ring to court so he could beat that drug-related murder rap. Liar!

Extreme? Yes, it was. But for that one fraction of a second, that’s exactly how I felt. And I literally felt it. In my gut. Much as I had felt it when my oldest brother’s telephone-filtered voice told me that our father had died. My reaction was that strong, and that visceral.

The irony is that the training seminar I was attending was so that I could become a certified Safe Zone ally, so that I could advertise to the university that, hey, if you’re an LGBTQ member of our community and you need someone to talk with about that, I’m here for you. You see, I’ve been an “ally” since back before the queer community had such a concise word for us odd, friendly breeders. Back when I was in high school during the AIDS crisis, something like two-thirds of my closest friends were gay or lesbian. The parties I went to were mostly gay folks. The nightspots I went to were mostly gay hangouts. Any girl I was currently crushing on, the odds were about two-to-one she didn’t bat for my team. I didn’t think about it a lot; it was just the way things were. As often as one of my friends disappointed me with “no, she’s gay,” one of them was disappointing someone else about me with “no, he’s straight.” The joys and the dramas of the relationships in my circle didn’t seem to be much affected by the genders or orientations of the people in them. People hooked up. They fell in love. They had relationships. Sometimes those relationships were glorious. Sometimes they were quietly successful. Sometimes they needed work, and sometimes they just didn’t work out. Once in a while, someone would throw us all a curve-ball and jump the fence. Sometimes it was a momentary experiment. Sometimes it was the beginning of a twenty-year relationship. Gay, straight, male, female, or anywhere in the liminal spaces in between, it didn’t really have a significant impact on the overall pattern. Love was love, in all its inspiring, insane, messy, and complicated glory.

I’ve also had a strongly egalitarian mindset for as long as I can remember. I’m not sure of the source of that mindset. Maybe it comes from growing up in a little farming town where folks were just folks, whether they were the mayor or the town drunk. Maybe it comes from identifying strongly with my mother in a still-misogynistic rural culture. Maybe it comes from spending my tween years as the poor white kid in a professional black neighborhood. Maybe it comes from seeing the crap my gay high-school friends caught just for being gay. Regardless, I have long been of the opinion that everyone deserves the same rights I enjoy as a straight, white, native-born American male. For decades, that has included the belief that committed same-sex couples deserve all the legal rights and recognitions of their heterosexual counterparts. It took me a while to come around about the word “marriage,” but that was largely because I felt it was a hot-button word that was more likely to incite a knee-jerk reaction from the conservative religious right, and that toning down the semantics (“civil union” or “domestic partnership”) would be a little more pragmatic in terms of getting it through the legislature.

So why did I, with that background, have such a gut-level reaction to one man’s ring? Especially given the context of the setting, and of my own professed open-mindedness, I was disturbed by my reaction, and I had to take some time to reflect on it. In the end, I could only come up with one thing: We as a culture implicitly associate the wearing of a wedding ring not just with the social status of being in a committed relationship, but also with the legal status of licensed marriage. And no such legal status exists between a man and another man in the state of North Carolina.

The implicit statement made by that lack of legal status, though it may not be intentional, is that no relationship between members of the same gender could ever be stable enough, or legitimate enough, to “deserve” a ring. It says that my marriage with my wife, which is just past the three-year mark, is somehow more legitimate than my friend G’s relationship with his partner of over thirty years. More insidiously, it means that anyone who wants to exclude him from visiting his partner in the hospital, or who wants to withhold information about his partner’s medical condition, is free to do so without recourse, because he is not legally a family member. It means that in order for him to make medical decisions on his partner’s behalf, he is required to produce a legal document, signed and notarized, granting him medical power of attorney. It adds layers of legal complexity to the holding of any joint property, such as real estate, cars, and bank accounts, and it means that when one of them dies, the surviving partner is not automatically guaranteed the right of survivorship in the disposition of those assets, as would be the case in my relatively brief, but state-sanctioned marriage. It means that without a ream of legal documentation, a belligerent  and homophobic sibling who has not seen the deceased partner in decades could, literally, step in as next of kin and deny the surviving partner any access to the deceased partner’s assets or end-of-life decisions.

In a very literal, legal sense, the lack of legal recognition of committed same-sex relationships relegates the partners in those relationships to the status of second-class citizens. They have almost none of the legal rights that their legally-married, heterosexual counterparts take for granted. To make matters worse, the North Carolina legislature has recently approved a referendum on a “Defense of Marriage” constitutional amendment stating that “Marriage between one man and one woman is the only domestic legal union that shall be valid or recognized in this State” (PDF). That amendment will go to a popular vote in the May primary election, when historically only a small portion of the population bothers to vote. When that happens, it is entirely possible that a small minority of North Carolina voters could etch those definitions into the legal bedrock of our state constitution. I think it’s pretty obvious how I feel about that possibility.

We in the Bachelor of Arts in Liberal Studies program try to look at the world from as many various points of view as we can reasonably accommodate. The literature course I most frequently teach looks at the world through the eyes of various socioeconomic classes, of immigrants of various stripes, of disenfranchised minorities and comfortable socialites, of poor rural and middle-class urban African-Americans, of drafted soldiers and reservation-dwelling Native Americans. One of the readings in that class follows a middle-class youth coming to terms with his own homosexuality. Many other classes in the BLS Program have much the same emphasis on the variety of human experience. I am tempted to fall back on a tired metaphor of life as a sculpture, and not a painting, as something that can look very different from different points of view, and that cannot be fully appreciated without taking in as many angles as possible. The truth is that if any of us only views the world from within our own, limited, point of view, we are missing out on the wonderful variety and diversity of the human experience.

When it comes right down to it, for all I know some of my assumptions about that man with his ring are probably correct. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to find out that he and his partner do have a house with a mortgage and a lawn, a couple of modest but versatile cars, a household balancing the various pressures of work and home life, quiet evenings at home in front of the tube, and subtle jokes about having become boring homebodies. Sound familiar? Yeah. Me too.

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If you want to read further, here’s the history of the “Defense of Marriage” bill in North Carolina’s 2011-2012 legislative session (primary sources):