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Imperfect Unions

A new documentary sells gay marriage as the only answer to discrimination

In 1991 two Florida police officers were married in a loving ceremony captured on video. Their names were Mickie Mashburn and Lois Marrero, and though they were both women, their union was supported by members of their families and by fellow officers. Ten years later, when Lois was shot to death in the line of duty, Mickie sought the rights to Lois' pension. She couldn't get them. Without a state-issued marriage license, she had no legal recourse to what would have been any heterosexual widow's due. Meanwhile, Lois' sister, who had been a ring bearer at the couple's wedding, demanded the benefits for herself.

This story is one of several wrenching accounts of injustice followed in Tying the Knot, a documentary that exposes the discrimination suffered by American same-sex couples, who've always been denied the right to marry. Though the film includes interviews with activists and footage of Pride parades, protests and legislative debate, it's the personal narratives that pack the punch. The march toward legalized gay marriage (Hawaii, Vermont, Massachusetts, San Francisco) is recounted mostly in passing, without any depth; for much longer stretches, the film lingers on Mickie and her battle and on Sam, a farmer in rural Oklahoma, and his.

Sam's story is a heartbreaker. Baseball-capped and plaid-shirted, with a slow-talkin' Southern drawl, he looks like the kind of man you'd find on the other side of the fence, worrying over the fate of our nation's families. Instead, he speaks with deep and abiding affection for Earl, his husband of 22 years, whom he lost not long before the film was shot. Together, the men built a house and farm where they kept rabbits, chickens and horses, among other animals. They also raised Sam's sons (from his previous marriage), two of whom appear in the film, openly accepting, even enamored, of both of their fathers.

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In his will, Earl left his entire estate to Sam, and family members agree that the signature on the document is authentic. But Earl signed his will alone, absent of the two witnesses necessary to legally bind it. At the time of filming, Earl's cousins have contested the will, and Sam stands to lose everything. Meanwhile, Sam's assets (a rental house, boxes hidden for safety in tractor trailers in the woods) begin to disappear or go up in flames. His husband's cousins are out to destroy him, and it's bitterly sad.

Mickie and Sam are Tying the Knot's greatest assets, two people whose lives are in the grip of discrimination and for whom the course of events would be drastically different were gay marriage legalized. The film's finest moments come from these two and those who support them. (When the director asks Sam's son what he thought of Earl, the young man says, with a hefty dose of machismo, "He was cool." Then he begins to cry.) But in the end, Tying the Knot doesn't quite do them justice, largely because it fails to include other sides of the debate.

When a film's promotional material describes "religious conservatives" as people who "feel threatened," its bias is pretty clear. Director Jim de Sève has no patience for those who quote the Bible when discussing issues of United States law; indeed, he is far from alone. What's interesting is that Tying the Knot is even less willing to acknowledge the debate among gay people about marriage. The film presents the "gay community" as a united front, uniformly seeking legal marriage, when the truth is far more complex. Plenty of gay people -- Andrew Sullivan, the gay Republican senior editor of The New Republic, among them -- see marriage as a conservative institution, evolved from an economic arrangement that secured property and labor for men. Is that something gay people want to endorse?

Other activists, gay and straight, recognize that the 1,000-plus federal rights conveyed upon married people might be more properly bestowed on everyone. In other words, if the point of expanding the legal definition of marriage is to convey deserved legal benefits to same-sex couples, why not give these benefits to single people as well? Why are married people rewarded in our society? Is one person a better citizen than another simply because she has a romantic partner? What if our society honored every citizen equally, streamlining legal processes such as will creation and hospital-visitor designation, so that every person had a clear and legally viable statement of her preferences in critical matters?

These are important questions being raised in very public forums, but to watch Tying the Knot, you'd never know it. The film is essentially an advertisement for gay marriage -- an effective, sweet and moving advertisement, to be sure -- but far less an examination of a pressing public issue than a piece of promotional material. It's hard to imagine this film preaching to anyone other than its own choir, though maybe it'll reach a few schools. If it does, the teachers who show it might want to consider using supplemental materials.

 
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