Last week, after filing my taxes as a “single” person – coupled for nearly ten years and raising two daughters – after claiming zero dependents and dotting the “i” in my name for the 1040EZ, I went on a Facebook tax rant. It’s not in my nature, most days, to rant in public. But a friend of mine had her own tax rant a few days prior about paying for the privilege of filing online to save a tree… and I was just plain cranky.
Because language matters to me. Semantics matter. Words are my life and it matters to me how something is said. It matters to me when my family disappears from view because the words to describe us simply aren’t there. That matters to me. It just does.
And yet, there are times when I prioritize other things. I told my stepdaughter once, “You can say whatever you want to at school about me. Tell your friends whatever makes sense to you at the time, but please don’t let that get in the way of how we relate to each other. How we are with each other at home… is sacred.” As if language didn’t also shape our lives. As if, as the daughter of a lesbian mom, this wasn’t her fight, too. As if we could live our lives separately from the words we used to describe it. Which we can’t. Not well. Not all the time.
Well, maybe you can – but I can’t. Are you with me? Words are powerful.
How we live our lives is powerful, too.
I had a friend call me once because her ex-partner was writing my friend out of the family, claiming to be their daughter’s only mom, and my friend was understandably panicked. “But you are her mom,” I said. “Be her mom. Nobody can take that away from you. It doesn’t matter how your ex- describes it. You know what’s real.” It did matter, depending on who her ex- spoke with, but that wasn’t my point. She was getting legal advice from someone else. From me, she needed to be reminded what was true, and living in a society that so often gets confused (or incensed) by what they don’t understand, it’s easy sometimes for us to get confused (or incensed), too, and begin to think the words others use to describe us are real. When they’re not.
Words help us make sense of the world. But as a society, we don’t always agree on what words mean.
Before bedtime recently, my partner and I had a chat about marriage and civil unions in front of our second grader, who declared that her Mama and I should wait until the laws are completely fair before we “get married,” because it’s just not right to have some of the benefits but not all of them and we should hold out for the real thing.
Okay! But what is the real thing? Do we let the state define that for us? Or the feds? The feds hold the power to award more than 1000 benefits, rights and responsibilities along with that certificate of marriage, so even though I really, truly, deeply believe we must define family for ourselves, I want a piece of that, too. I do.
I have a great deal of respect for the same-sex couples testing out the institutions made available to us over the past twenty years – signing papers, exchanging vows, living in this limbo between state and federal recognition, and later hiring CPAs to do their taxes because there’s still so much uncertainty about what each word means – marriage, civil union, domestic partnership – so much conflict, so much confusion. These families are working out kinks in the law, helping to shape the public discourse, standing up to be counted, and WE NEED THESE PEOPLE to say “I’m married” at work, at home, in the paper and on the news.
But when it comes down to it, marriage is a personal decision – no matter who you are – and what I have at home is the real thing, too, no matter what it’s called.
Within 24 hours of posting my Facebook tax rant, I heard from Illinois, Massachusetts, California, and Texas – about civil unions and marriage and being united by the state and divided by the feds. A few days later, a former colleague sent me this: For N.J. same-sex couples, filing taxes turns headaches into migraines. And then Mombian posted this: A Taxing Problem for Same-Sex Families. Apparently I am not the only one for whom Tax Day touches a nerve.
But it was “the real thing” that stuck with me. We need new words. Because how do you explain to an 8-year-old why her family is not protected and revered and respected the same way her friends’ families are, when the love and commitment are just as real?