Monday, November 19, 2007

Equality Begins at Home

We've had a hell of a week around here. I wish I had the words to describe it; perhaps that would exorcise some of the pain. My brother's memorial service was beautiful, a reflection of his life and work. The church was full to overflowing with family, friends, and colleagues who came to remember his dedication, his courage, his humor. His pastor, a wonderful, gifted woman who was a close friend, shared the pulpit with others who were touched by his kindness and his commitment to equality for all people. We buried his ashes in the memorial garden that he designed and helped to build.

Ken founded an organization called Equality Begins at Home, which was merged with another LGBT rights group in 2002 to form Equality Alabama. This week brought home to me the importance of that name. Equality does indeed begin at home, and when inequality persists, it is our family and friends who suffer. Everywhere Tony turned during this ordeal, he had to wait for our approval of his decisions. Thank God I could get to the hospital quickly; I had to sign the form that gave permission to release Ken's body. When we changed our minds about which funeral home to use, I had to get on the phone and say yes before the hospital could make the change. When we made arrangements for Ken's cremation, my mother had to sign the consent form, even though Tony was "allowed" to sign the contract for payment. Although he consulted us at every turn and knew that we would approve his decisions, he wasn't permitted to perform the duties of a spouse -- the spouse that he was and is in every sense other than legal. He, being the wonderful person that he has always been, never complained, but I found it painfully offensive and intrusive. (I do need to point out that all of the people we dealt with were sympathetic and understanding, particularly at the funeral home, but their hands were tied by legal requirements.)

Those of us who've read up on the subject of marriage equality have likely run across the oft-quoted statistic that marriage brings with it over 1,000 legal rights that are not granted to couples like Ken and Tony. That's a good fact to remember, but dry numbers can't begin to portray the reality of the experience. Yes, I know couples can take some steps to protect their interests in case of, oh, say, a medical emergency, but who exactly is going to be digging through the file cabinet looking for paperwork when the paramedics are trying to get the patient to the hospital? And it's likely, although I can't say so with complete certainty, that my mother or I could have walked in and taken over as "real" next of kin even if Tony had had papers in hand. We do, after all, live in Alabama.

So. If you were sitting on the fence about marriage equality -- maybe you're straight and don't see why it's so important, maybe you're young and can't foresee a sudden death or catastrophic illness, maybe you assume everything can be handled with (expensive, time-consuming, and subject to legal challenge) paperwork -- it's time to climb down on the side of justice and compassion. Speak up. Tell your friends, your co-workers, your family members. Talk to your elected representatives. Join Equality Alabama and other organizations that work for equality and justice, and donate what you can to support their work. There is strength in numbers, and even small contributions add up quickly.

Ken left us a legacy and a challenge. Equality begins at home. My home -- and yours. Let's make it a reality sooner rather than later.


Note: If you make a donation to Equality Alabama and designate it in memory of Ken Baker (you can do that on the online form), your gift will be used to maintain the newly-renamed Ken Baker Equality Alabama Justice Center in Montgomery. Read more about it here.

I also want to thank Zach, Liss, Pam, Blue Gal, and BAC for their lovely tributes to Ken; Tom, Danny, and Kristopher for posting condolences; and everyone who emailed or left a comment (and please let me know if I've missed a post).

Cross-posted at Birmingham Blues