Annette, two mommies, and me
Annette Bening’s face says it all. Every beautiful, hard-earned wrinkle is shown in extreme close-up as she realizes that her spouse of two decades has been having an affair. Bening’s gestures are subtle; the sense of betrayal is profound.
It is a heart-breaking and universally human moment from the recently released film, “The Kids Are All Right.” But for those of us in same-sex relationships it should also serve as a shocking reminder that in 21st century America, this oldest of all wounds could not only cost us our marriages, it could cost us our children.
Bening’s character lives with her two kids and her female partner, played by Julianne Moore. Each woman gave birth to a child conceived with sperm from the same anonymous donor. The veil of anonymity is lifted when the donor enters the family’s life after the kids, now 18 and 15, locate him through the sperm bank. Moore’s character cheats on Bening with the donor -- an implausible twist in an otherwise uncomfortably and comically honest movie. The characters never discuss the politics of same-sex marriage or two-parent adoption. We aren’t told whether the women are married, whether they are registered domestic partners or whether they have cross-adopted the kids. We do know that they live in California, a state that has long provided robust legal protections for same-sex couples.
But what if the women split up and -- like many straight couples -- could not deal civilly or fairly with each other? What if they lived in a state that refused to recognize their relationship? What if they hailed from a place that had not allowed them to establish a legal relationship with their non-biological child? What if they lived in a jurisdiction where the claims of a sperm donor might trump the rights of a person who has been a devoted parent but has no biological connection to the child?
These possibilities are horrifying, even for those of us in loving and stable long-term relationships. I’ve spent the past 28 years of my life with the same woman. (I often tell her how lucky she is; she knows better.) We’ve shared slow dances in the living room, vacations with in-laws, diaper duty, mortgage payments, the loss of loved ones, cheap wine, fine food, car pools, weepy graduations, and an inordinate number of “The Office” and “Scrubs” re-runs (our teenage sons’ current favorites). We have survived our share of doubts, although nothing like what Bening encounters. Yet our relationship means nothing under the laws of most states. And in most I would be viewed as having no legal relationship with our sons. My sons.
We’ve talked about getting married, especially now that it’s legal in D.C. And we probably will, even though it would not carry the force of law where we live. But part of me resents having to jump through hoops to have my three-decade marriage recognized. If we “tie the knot” now, what have the past 28 years been?
Marriage laws don’t just recognize relationships and bestow certain rights and responsibilities on the parties. They also protect spouses -- and kids -- when things go wrong. And “things go wrong” in gay relationships as often as they do in straight ones. One would hope that strong, loving relationships of all types could endure such setbacks. But if they can’t, the pain felt by the Annette Benings of the world should not be compounded by the fear that all that you have built, all that is meaningful could be taken away in a flash because the law does not recognize that you exist.
| July 29, 2010; 11:03 AM ET
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