Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Legal Recognition of Friendship

In today's marketplace of ideas, you hear all sorts of things discussed. However, when it comes to relationships, the legitimate legal and civil rights issue of same-sex marriage is the one usually that comes up for discussion, or shouting...depending on which side you may favor. I have been in a few such discussions and shouting matches about it myself, I am twice widowed from same-sex LTRs (17 years and 7 years respectively). But having arrived in my sixth decade, I have absolutely no interest in dating again, or even hookups, as casual sex is called these days. About the only time I get involved now in LGBTQ issues is at the PFLAG chapter meetings that I usually lead.

I find myself like a few million other Americans (gay and straight), nearing or in retirement, having little or no family, and wondering what might happen to us as we grow older. Unlike many Southern gay men of my age, I never married or had children. In the South, when I was a young man, there was tremendous family and society pressure to marry someone of the opposite sex. There still is pressure, but my gawd, now when a person comes out to his family, he usually doesn't have to define it more than saying he or she is LGBTQ. When I came our around 18 or 19 in Georgia, there was nothing. No PFLAG, no welcoming church, no community groups, nada. In fact, you might be killed or arrested just for being gay. There was one gay bar in Macon (I'm a Mercer grad.), and when I was old enough (and sometimes earlier), that is where I learned about gay life. But I digress.

Most of my close friends live far enough away that it would not be practical for them to help either, should I need help. But what if I had some injury or illness that required some sort of care that was not serious enough for hospital care and I could not really care for myself? For those on Medicare (I'm still too young.), only a fraction of home-based care is usually covered. I don't earn a huge salary. I've had many financial setbacks in my life. I couldn't afford to pay anyone and still have anything left. What then? A person of my age in my situation has to think of it...and have some sort of plan.

I researching information to actually have something close to a plan, I ran across this article in the NY Times: The New Old Age: Single, Childless and ‘Downright Terrified’. In the article, I found a link to this story in the Boston Globe: now pronounce you . . . friend and friend, which is about the case some people are now making that it is time to legally recognize the bond of friendship. Case in point: Under the Family Leave Act (pdf), a friend (or sibling) is not legally eligible to take time from work to give care to a friend (or sibling). In these economic times, I can imagine how well such a request would fare with most employers if one dared to ask. A sibling might work, but a friend? I doubt it.
...a number of scholars are seeking to shore up friendship in a surprising way: by granting it legal recognition. Some of the rights and privileges restricted to family, they argue, should be given to friends. These could be invoked on a case-by-case basis - eligibility to take time off to care for a sick friend under an equivalent of the Family and Medical Leave Act, for example. Or they could take the form of an official legal arrangement between two friends, designating a bundle of mutual rights and privileges - literally "friends with benefits," as Laura Rosenbury, a law professor at Washington University, puts it. One scholar even suggests giving friends standing in the tax code, allowing taxpayers to write off certain "friend expenditures."

Such changes, proponents say, could contribute to a shift in how our society values personal relationships. In part, they say, the point is to acknowledge that society has already changed: as more people are living outside of marriage, friendships have become the primary relationships on which many Americans rely. But a broader aim is to recognize the universal social and psychological benefits of friendship, which rival those of other relationships, notably marriage, that receive active state support. New laws could elevate friendship's status, recasting it as an essential part of our lives, rather than a luxury often sacrificed to other priorities. [Boston Globe]
This is heady stuff, and I dare say most of us have never considered it. I had not. Yet, it makes perfect sense in today's society. Even if you have family, you may life distant, be estranged, or simply not be close. While some contend that extended families are re-emerging in American society, there are still many of us who know that is not an option. It's either a friend who cares enough to help, or someone finds you dead after weeks in your home alone. Well...as long as I don't suffer much.