First published at 365gay.com on June 10, 2011
“Are you married?”
It seems like a simple question. But on closer glance, much depends on context.
In this case, the context was jury duty. I was Candidate #13, sitting in the box during “voir dire,” the process wherein the judge and attorneys ask questions in order to weed out potential juror bias.
“You know, you can get out of jury duty by telling them you’re gay,” a friend had told me the day before. “Just say that because you’re not allowed to marry, you have no faith in the legal system and can’t promise an impartial verdict.”
But I don’t want to be excused from jury duty. I consider it my civic duty. And it doesn’t interfere much with my job (philosophy professor), since I defer my summons until summer, when I don’t teach. Besides, as much as I resent my exclusion from marriage, that resentment scarcely affects my desire to see criminals jailed and innocent people freed.
And so there I sat, eager to serve, as the judge asked each juror a standard list of questions. “Where do you live? Do you recognize any of the people involved in this case? What do you do for a living? Are you married?”
“Oh, shit,” I thought to myself.
“Are you married?” should be a simple question, and at one level, my simple answer is No. I live in a state (Michigan) that constitutionally prohibits me from marrying my partner, and we have not married in any other state.
So, technically, no.
But legal marriage isn’t the only relevant sense of marriage. My partner, Mark, and I have been together for almost a decade. Six years ago we had a commitment ceremony, publicly promising to love, honor and cherish each other for the rest of our lives. We merged our assets and melded our lives, and as far as we and our friends and most family are concerned, we’re married, and the State of Michigan can go screw itself.
How’s that for a response that will get me out of jury duty?
Getting out of jury duty wasn’t my concern, however. “Voir dire” means “to tell the truth;” its purpose is to reveal potentially relevant biases. And the judge’s follow-up question to “Are you married?” was always “What does your spouse do?” He was particularly concerned about spouses who were somehow connected to law enforcement.
Mark is an attorney.
Granted, he’s not a litigator, and we never discuss criminal law. But that’s the sort of thing the judge wanted to reveal when he asked about spouses, and so I felt a moral obligation to mention it.
Actually, to be precise, the judge didn’t ask about “spouses.” He asked men “What does your wife do?” and women “What does your husband do?” As I fidgeted in my chair, I noticed that its placement at the platform’s edge made it impossible for me to plant my feet squarely on the floor—a fact that only compounded my discomfort.
“Are you married?”
The judge had finally reached me. “I have a domestic partner,” I responded firmly.
He asked another, unrelated question, and for a moment I thought the spousal issue had passed. Then, “Oh—and what does your partner do?”
“He’s an attorney,” I responded, making sure to articulate clearly the “he.” I kept my eyes on the judge, although I was curious about others’ reactions as I outed myself to the packed courtroom.
I was not chosen for jury duty.
The prosecuting attorney dismissed me with her first “peremptory challenge,” meaning that there was no stated reason. Maybe it was because I identified myself as gay. More likely, it was because I identified myself as a philosophy professor. As litigator friends have often told me, prosecutors never want jurors who might “overthink.”
But the experience highlighted for me once again the hetero-normativity of everyday life, as well as the unintended consequences of excluding same-sex couples from marriage.
When our opponents insist on treating our spouses as mere roommates, is this really what they want?
Do they want me to say “No” when asked by a judge if I’m married, and to leave it at that? What if Mark were a litigator? What if he worked for the prosecutor’s office? Legally, technically, he’s not “family.”
The disparity between legal reality and social reality is stark here. To take just one more example: suppose I worked for my university’s medical school. Then I would be required to disclose any pharmaceutical stock holdings by myself or my spouse. But Mark is not my spouse, legally speaking.
Some may delight in this “gay disclosure loophole.” Personally, I think it’s just a depressing reminder of society’s blindness to the reality of our lives.