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Continued: Marriage Amendment - a judge's tale

  • Article by: LLOYD ZIMMERMAN
  • Last update: November 25, 2011 - 11:04 AM

After I published a love story in the New York Times last month about how I presided over the wedding of a dying Minneapolis man to his partner of 38 years, I received deeply emotional letters from all over the country.

A letter from a mom in Boston, describing her 2-year-old son saying: "Mommy, why are you crying into your oatmeal?"

From a doctor in Dallas, writing: "if there's a typo in this letter, plese [sic] forgive me; I couldn't see through the tears."

But today I am writing about a voice mail from a south Minneapolis woman named Liz. In a quiet voice, she said that neither she nor her partner of 12 years, Jeanne, could ask a Minnesota judge for a deathbed wedding.

Same-sex weddings are barred, and a 2012 ballot measure could amend the Minnesota Constitution to keep such weddings illegal for generations.

Judges usually don't comment in newspapers about legal matters; we have engrained habits of judicial reserve and modesty. I am writing, however, not about the law, but about love, family and understanding.

I think of Elie Wiesel, the author and Holocaust survivor, who wrote, "The opposite of love is not hate, it's indifference."

I know a little about justice. I've labored in the trenches of justice, as a lawyer or judge, for more than 33 years.

For more than two decades, it's been illegal in Minnesota to deny someone a job, housing or services because of their sexual orientation.

It's also illegal to shut the door on someone's hope for a job or an apartment because of their race, color, religion, national origin, disability or age.

Discrimination based on sexual orientation is unlawful in Minnesota almost everywhere but the private sanctuary: our homes.

I'm guessing that most of us wouldn't tolerate the government limiting our choices for spouses.

We can marry anyone under Minnesota law, provided that we wait five days after getting a wedding license, that we certify we are "no nearer of kin than the first cousins once removed," that we attest that "neither of us has a spouse living," and that we verify that "one of the applicants is a man and the other a woman."

We can marry someone 40 years younger, or older; someone heavier, darker, lighter; someone with a great sense of humor or who can't crack a joke.

We can solemnly vow to love and hold each other 'til death to us part," and then divorce, six months later, as long as one person is a man and the other a woman.

We wed in front of judges, ministers, rabbis and friends recently ordained through the Internet. We promise with good intention to marry "for as long as you both shall live."

But we're not prescient, and the law allows us to be human and fallible. About one-third of our marriages end in divorce.

The courts, sometimes ahead of their day, sometimes behind, have been the last refuge of human dignity. The state and federal Constitutions remain the ultimate bastions of individual freedoms.

They provide a sanctuary for liberty, not a cage.

Some say it is "unnatural" for gay or lesbian couples to marry each other. The same was said for marriages between blacks and whites, Jews and Christians, Finns and Swedes. In some families, that is still true.

My own father, born before World War I, took a long time to accept the decision of my twin sister, Nancy, to marry a black man. For years, he would not allow her name to be spoken.

He didn't get to see his grandson Ty, now a responsible father of his own four children, grow up. He never got to know the kind heart and playful humor of Nancy's (now former) husband, Scott.

In time, my dad changed his mind, asked forgiveness and was forgiven. Wounds healed; our family was repaired.

This lesson, and saving my sister from a suicide attempt over her pain, was hard. It taught me how even my own dad, a man otherwise honorable and moral, could harbor prejudice.

Can we get past the idea of what a married couple should look like? A family? The idea that every child should have a mom and dad or -- heaven forbid -- two moms or two dads?

Almost half of Minnesota families don't have a mom and dad living in the same home.

Some kids don't have either parent. Those kids live with grandparents or in foster homes. They grow up hoping someone will find them worthy of love.

Judges preside over adoptions, so I got to see what "kind of people" took home the kids no one else would: the little boy with a respirator, a colostomy bag, a big smile and an Afro; his younger sister, with cerebral palsy; their cousin, with severe behavioral disorders and a feeding tube.

There would be balloons, flowers, smiles and hugs in the courtroom, the place where we celebrated these events -- made them legal. Often, these "throwaway" kids were rescued, taken home to be loved, by two moms or two dads.

Those kids could then eventually marry into a family in front of a judge and get an official certificate saying it was legal; it was just their parents who could not.

Our neighbors who can't legally marry take out the garbage, mow the lawn, shovel the snow, coach hockey, burn the turkey.

They'll help you sell your home, check your X-ray, serve your coffee at the local cafe, and remember your name (and whether you like cream and one sugar).

They teach your kids, get you out of jail if you need a lawyer, help you survive cancer or a heart attack, and provide your hospice care -- whispering loving things in your ear and helping you cross the divide.

Maybe your child, or grandchild or best friend have not yet "come out" to you. Or maybe you haven't come out to them -- or to yourself.

Most of us just want someone to hug us when we're happy or sad, to inhale life's problems, to hold our hand when we get that unexpected diagnosis and to answer "yes" to a question embedded in our soul: "Do you promise to love and care for each other, in good times and bad, in sickness and health, for better or worse, for as long as you both shall live?"

Some of us are lucky enough to have found the partner who loves us enough to say, "I will."

I have a life partner named Becky, my wife of almost 30 years. She helps me breathe after a day of hearing other people's saddest problems, pretends to laugh at my jokes, and walks around the lake without making me say a word, holding my hand.

Why should this be denied to us if Becky were a "Bob?"

For Thomas, featured in the New York Times story, it was the one thing he needed before he could die in peace -- to hear the woman he loved say in front of a judge: "I do."

I met Liz for the first time a couple weeks ago, on a Tuesday evening at the Anodyne coffee shop, on Nicollet near 43rd Street in south Minneapolis. We'd planned to meet briefly, but parted after hours.

I didn't know Liz when she left a simple, poignant voice mail on my phone one Saturday morning in late October. I knew the Bible said to "love thy neighbor."

Liz was my neighbor, someone I'd never met and didn't know. Now she's my friend.

Her quiet presence reminded me of the philosophy of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., and of the street named after him in St. Paul where you address your mail when you send something to the Minnesota Supreme Court, the place where the building reads "Equal justice under law."

Liz wants to enjoy the love and understanding we all deserve.

She wants to be able to look in the mirror, at Jeanne, to have a married life, to legally proclaim: "We are family."

To be able to say: "I am somebody."

* * *

Lloyd Zimmerman is a Hennepin County district judge. His New York Times essay was reprinted in the Star Tribune on Oct. 29 as "And, reader, I married them."

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