I never thought I’d live to see the day when my partner and I would be talking about getting married. But just a few short days after marriage equality passed in Illinois, Stephen and I were having dinner at a cozy little Greek restaurant in the Bucktown neighborhood of Chicago when he turned to me and said, “I’ve always wanted an outdoor wedding.” I knew he loved doing it outdoors, but even I was surprised by this latest revelation.
Valentine’s Day is fast approaching, and with the recent passage of same-sex marriage bills in Illinois and Hawaii, lots of us gays are going to be thinking about more than just candy, roses, and Cupid’s arrow. Marriage is not for everyone, but in those states that allow it, people entering into a same-sex marriage will now be able to enjoy all of the benefits that come along with different-sex marriage.
In Illinois, marriage comes with over 600 state-level rights, benefits, and protections, including property rights, health care decisions, medical and life insurance, and others. And now that the federal government also recognizes our marriages, that comes with more than 1,100 protections and rights. That’s a lot of rights.
These rights are especially important for people living with HIV. While everyone should have health care powers of attorney drawn up, these documents aren’t always recognized or honored by hospitals or families. I’ll never forget a friend of mine whose partner lay dying in a hospital room being denied the right to be by his partner’s side and hold his hand, never to see him again, despite having had those papers drawn up. With marriage equality on the books in 16 states as of this writing, rights such as guaranteed hospital visitation, survivor benefits, and the ability to be added to your spouse’s health care plan are no longer pipe dreams, but the new reality.
The highest rates of HIV infection in the United States continue to be among gay, bisexual, and other men who have sex with men (MSM — even if they don’t self-identify as gay). According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, MSM accounted for 63% of new HIV infections in the United States in 2010 (the largest number for any transmission group) and 78% of all newly infected men.
Since gay men are disproportionately affected by HIV, I believe the normalization of gays and lesbians entering into marriage will one day lead to a kind of normalization of those living with HIV. Better awareness and understanding will ultimately lead to a reduction in HIV stigma overall. Sensitivity training will need to take place among health care workers in hospitals and businesses that provide services and benefits to LGBT individuals who are legally married. Survivor benefits will be available so that the married spouse doesn’t end up being kicked out on the street by an ignorant or homophobic in-law or relative. In those states with marriage equality, the Family and Medical Leave Act now provides protection to eligible employees to take leave so they can care for a same-sex spouse who falls ill.
Choosing whether to get married is not something to be considered lightly, and shouldn’t be decided based solely on financial issues or health care rights — marriage is a lifelong commitment. But as the number of states passing marriage equality grows, each additional one is another step toward equal rights for LGBT people everywhere — and a huge advancement for those living with HIV.
Jeff Berry is interim CEO of Test Positive Aware Network, editor of Positively Aware magazine, and a blogger for The Huffington Post. He has been living with HIV since 1989 and resides in Chicago with his partner, Stephen, and their furry “kids,” Zack, Missy, and Kylie. Follow him on Twitter at @paeditor.