Last April I wrote The Closet is Full. I wanted to revisit this issue as we begin a new year. I watched a documentary called Tying the Knot over the holiday break. One of the stories documented in the film was of a lesbian couple in Tampa, Florida. They served on the police force together and had been partners for several years and had held a "wedding" ceremony at some point in their relationship.
One of the partners was shot and killed in the line of duty and the family of the deceased was contesting her will. As I listened to the press conference where the family members explained their reasons for contesting the will, I thought once again about this post.
It is easy to watch this documentary and feel indignant toward the family contesting the will of these long-term, committed partners. There is no question that stories like these highlight the need for legal protection for the LGBT community.
We can find story after story where the written and legal documentation of the wishes of the deceased are not honored because the institution of marriage is so heavily intertwined into inheritance within the minds and hearts of Americans. I would think this would make all Americans shake in their boots. Facing death is terrifying. But it seems to bring some measure of comfort to people when they make a Last Will and Testament and feel assured that the wishes contained within will be honored. The fact that those wishes are often only honored in the case where there is a legal surviving spouse should incense both gay and straight. This is not a "gay" issue. Americans are so conditioned to accepting a specific order of property inheritance that anything contrary to that accepted order is considered justifiable grounds to contest the documented and legal wishes of the deceased. We have seen such issues arise, not only within the LGBT community, but also where heterosexual couples have decided not to marry for any number of reasons and also where a subsequent marriage is involved.
Many senior citizens find it economically disadvantageous to marry a second time later in life. They may lose social security or pension benefits or even health care benefits. But they still want to fill their golden years with companionship. If they acquire property together, co-mingle assets, etc., they will want to communicate their inheritance wishes with the peace of mind that those wishes will be honored without contest. When the Ohio constitutional amendment limiting marriage to a couple consisting of one male and one female was on the ballot, there were numerous assertions by the supporters that this law did not in any way harm the rights of individuals to make contracts and wills that don't follow traditional convention. But we are finding this to be untrue as this documentary demonstrates.
There is another reason for revisiting this topic for the new year. As I watched the recounting of the press conference with the family of the deceased lesbian police officer I couldn't help but wonder just what the closet of these two partnered lesbians looked like to their families. The family knew they were living in a committed relationship. I believe they attended the "wedding" ceremony. Their co-workers were aware of their relationship.
But we know the closet is not a place where we live exclusively in or out. The closet follows us around everywhere we go. The closet is there when we go to a restaurant and accidentally say "honey" or answer the question "one check or two?". The closet is there when we talk to doctors or visit one another in the hospital. The closet is there when we answer innocent questions of our co-workers and acquaintances. The closet is there when we are with our family. The closet changes shape and size and form every minute of every day. The closet is a state of mind and we each have our own individual relationship with our closet.
As I listened to the family of this deceased lesbian police officer speak, I thought about what this lesbian couple allowed their family to see. Just how far out of the closet were they with their family? When we are on the inside of the closet looking out into the world, we know what is in our heart. We know that we are standing there with our heart pounding, wondering what would happen if I kissed my partner in front of my family. But the family doesn't see the heart pounding. The family doesn't hear the fearful thoughts. All the family sees is the interactions between this couple who claim to love each other and live as spouses and yet don't demonstrate that behavior at all.
This is the danger of living in the closet. This is the danger of hiding the true nature of our relationship from our family. Of course there is a risk to living life out of the closet. We face disapproval, being ostracized, even violence if we allow others to witness the true nature of our relationship with our partner. There is no easy answer here. The closet does follow us around and we have to assess each and every situation in terms of our level of comfort and safety. But I encourage you to consider the message you are sending to your family and the consequences to your partner in the event of your death if you haven't shown your family an accurate portrayal of your relationship.