Friends Without Benefits

“It is not good for man to be alone.” Genesis 2:18

For those who strive to rebut charges of anti-gay discrimination by underscoring their love of sinners, friendship has become an important rhetorical device.

The National Organization for Marriage’s Jennifer Roback Morse said of a hypothetical gay man or woman, ”What I would hope for for that person would be a lifetime of chaste friendships.”

When asked last year what he would say to a gay Catholic couple who approached him for marriage within the Church, the Archbishop of Westminster Reverend Vincent Nichols said: "I would want to say to them that…what they are called to is not marriage but a very profound and lifelong friendship."

Along the same lines, the best Archbishop Timothy Dolan, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, could say to gay people this Easter was “We want your happiness. But...you’re entitled to friendship.”

Friendship is a powerful thing, and a tremendous gift—but there are many things it is not.

“Friendship” won’t keep you at your partner’s side in the hospital if your partner's brother wants you gone. It won’t get you the flag from the coffin at your partner’s military funeral, or the wedding ring she wore for you.

Because LGBT people so often experience rejection from our biological families, we are big on the idea of our "family of choice.” This is so prevalent that, in certain circles, to say somebody “is family” is to identify that person as gay.

Despite this, no community is quite so sensitive to the reality that, for all its virtues, friendship isn’t family. For the people who try to use it this way, that’s the entire point.

Generations of gays and lesbians have heard that hitch in a parent’s voice when they introduce our partner as our “friend.” 

This language is a way of hiding the truth, of downplaying our beloved’s significance in our lives. We understand that sometimes it’s the best our loved ones can do. But there are times when a friend simply isn’t enough. 

When my mother died four years ago, my friends were amazing. They baked bread, took me out for coffee, provided shoulders to cry on—but they did not go with me into the hospice. They did not help me empty her home after she passed, and I did not take them with me to the place where I scattered her ashes by hand.

I suspect some would have if I’d asked, but I never would have asked that of somebody who was not family.

My friends are always there, ready to come when I call—but sometimes, as much as I love them, I don’t have the heart to reach out.

Marriage—for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health— means that when the tough times come, your partner is already there by your side.

Marriage means having somebody to share the holidays with without feeling like a guest at the table.

Marriage means having somebody who will not only take you to the hospital when you fall, but who will be there through the months of rehab as you learn to walk again.

At its heart, marriage means knowing that there is always somebody there for you, because when you asked if they always wanted to be there, they said “I do,” and you promised the same.

This is not to say that singleness is a terrible way to live, for a season or for one’s entire life. Still, it’s only fair to recognize that when a person goes through life without a partner, they go through many things alone. It can be done, but pretending that it isn’t harder sometimes is nothing less than a lie.

The suggestion that friendships are all any LGBT person needs or deserves is cruelty masquerading as kindness.

My friends love me, and they’ve always gone above and beyond, but I’ve been to their weddings, and I’ve heard their vows. "Forsaking all others" means their husband or wife always comes first. 

This is how it should be, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

But I hope you’ll forgive me if I hope for something more than friendship for myself, too.

Photo via flickr user J. McPherskesen

Comments (2)

Mmph! Yes!

Especially this

"Despite this, no community is quite so sensitive to the reality that, for all its virtues, friendship isn’t family. For the people who try to use it this way, that’s the entire point.

"Generations of gays and lesbians have heard that hitch in a parent’s voice when they introduce our partner as our 'friend.'

"This language is a way of hiding the truth, of downplaying our beloved’s significance in our lives. We understand that sometimes it’s the best our loved ones can do. But there are times when a friend simply isn’t enough. "

Though, and I know this wasn't the focus of your piece, I suggest that a narrow focus on marriage is short-sighted at best and problematic at worse. You raise my concern for me when you say,

"'Friendship' won’t keep you at your partner’s side in the hospital if your partner's brother wants you gone. It won’t get you the flag from the coffin at your partner’s military funeral, or the wedding ring she wore for you."

To which I have to ask "But why shouldn't it?" I know it doesn't. And I am CERTAINLY not advocated for "civil unions for all, keep marriage a religious ceremony" (oy!). But, I do have to question if marriage should be the only reliable way one is able to access health insurance, visit a hospital, raise children, receive inheritance.

I want marriage to be available to all people and also I recognize that even that isn't enough.

I'd love to hear how other people feel.

Hey Brian!
I'm familiar with the "beyond marriage" movement, but while I see the appeal for some things, overall I appreciate the unique place marriage has in our society -so long as all couples have equal access to it.

The core difference between friendship and legally recognized family is the element of obligation and responsibility. You can rely on that other person being there when you need them because they've taken the affirmative step to accept that responsibility through the marriage contract - and society provides benefits, like shared health insurance, because it knows that your partner is obligated to do the hard things (from accepting legal liability for your debts to raising your children if you die) and has given up the legal right to just walk away.

It's a different conversation, but because of that element of the social contract, I can understand reserving the benefits of marriage to relationships that have the same level of commitment. Friendship lacks that feature - I agree with C.S. Lewis's "The Four Loves" that its freedom is one of friendship's defining virtues that way - but because there's nothing holding friends together beyond affection, it's just not a stable foundation for most legal rights or responsibilities.

Wills, powers of attorney, benefit designation - they're ways of mimicking that acceptance of responsibility, but the ultimate choice to be a person's legal proxy in these most intimate matters is and probably always will be marriage. Because these responsibilities should never be taken lightly, and these powers leave an individual so terribly vulnerable, I really don't have a problem with that.

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