America, you’re talking about me again, and as usual the subject is what you will and will not allow me to do as I go about arranging my own life.  This time it’s because 15 brave people in Massachusetts–6 same-sex married couples and three 3 men–have mounted a legal challenge to DOMA.

DOMA is the Defense of Marriage Act, signed into law in 1996 by that great friend of the gays Bill Clinton, his broad “triangulation strategy” at its worst.  It denies federal recognition of same-sex marriages and gives each state the right to refuse recognition of same-sex marriage licenses issued by other states. While it doesn’t prohibit states from allowing gay marriages, it also doesn’t obligate other states to recognize those marriages.

Here’s what all this means to me in my real life:  I am a retired federal employee with the famously excellent health insurance that is part of the federal retirement package.  My partner Steve is not a fed.  He is 59 years old and will be finding himself in forced retirement in June, when the contract his company has with the government runs out.  He will lose his health insurance.  Because of federal law, I can’t put him on my policy as family.  We aren’t “married.”

The gay marriage issue was forced into the nation’s consciousness by the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), the pre-eminent gay rights lobby group.   There were other ways to navigate this minefield, but HRC chose this one, and in my opinion it was colossally wrong-headed.  Insistence on “marriage rights” tossed that red-meat M-word into the ring to be ravished by the religious right.  At the time, the cultural right was in the ascendancy from the White House on down, they owned the pulpit (word choice intentional), and they had and continue to have a field day rousing the Bible-toting rabble with our supposed attack on the holy sacrament of marriage. Like that other completely private matter, abortion, how I choose to conduct my life with the person I love has become one of those polarizing public topics that just won’t go away. It didn’t have to be that way. Civil unions could have been quietly recognized, state by state, until, before you knew it, you had a defacto national consensus. The federal government would have been forced to follow suit. “Marriage” as co-opted by the HRC would have had nothing to do with it.

Most gay couples are already able to cobble together legal protections equivalent to those automatically conveyed by what’s conventionally called marriage. Steve and I own everything together, from our house (right of survivorship) to our joint bank account. We have given each other legal and medical powers of attorney. Our end-of-life documents make it clear that we consider everything in our life equally and jointly owned. In short, in a legal sense, we are already “married.”

(Here is an illustrative sidebar to the matter of health care. I discovered a few years ago during a medical emergency that despite the scary bugaboo about hospitals having the option to ignore medical powers of attorney on moral grounds if they disagree with our living arrangement, HIPAA and standard medical practice make the nature of our relationship legally irrelevant. First, HIPAA forms simply ask, “whom should be contacted in the event of an emergency?” “Relationship” is not part of the question. And second, in order for treatment and follow-up care to continue after hospitalization, doctors need to know who will be the primary caregiver. I was accepted in that role as a matter of course, no questions asked. If the hospital had insisted on Steve’s unavailable blood next-of-kin, it was clear that I could have sued for malpractice and won.)

So we are as well-protected as we can be within the present legal framework. But there is a behemoth in the room: no federal acknowledgement of our relationship. Steve can’t legally name me as a survivor for his Social Security benefits, nor can he receive any share of my federal retirement pension after my death.  And I can’t put him on my health insurance policy.

As much as I admire the bravery and evident financial wherewithal of the Massachusetts 15 to pursue this case, I fear it may backfire for the same reasons all other such efforts that bring the word “marriage” into the conversation, and worse, doom other approaches because of the way it removes oxygen from them.  Before this legal challenge, there was already a glimmer of light, a move in Congress to work around DOMA. Last September, there was actually a hearing of the Government Affairs and Homeland Security Committee, chaired by Senators Joe Lieberman of Connecticut and Susan Collins of Maine. It was poorly publicized and held in the basement, but it was well-attended, and it set in motion a search for ways to implement equal benefits for same-sex couples in the federal work force. The issue was cast in terms of civil rights and homeland security, the rationale for the latter being that the government has to be at least as competitive as the private-sector institutions that already have these equality protections on their books. The Feds face a serious brain drain as Boomers retire, and the best minds are needed to protect the country. Many owners of those good minds happen to be in love with people of the same sex.

My actual preference would be to let DOMA remain as a fig leaf and give the Bible-thumpers their cover.  Essentially, Lieberman and Collins are saying, “we don’t care what you call it. Keep your ‘marriage.’ For the security of the nation, these people need equal protection and we’re working to see that they get it.”

So call it marriage, call it civil union, call it a romp in the woods. It’s all the same to me, and as far as the government is concerned, the “civil” part is the essence of marriage, anyway. In a church wedding, the clergy pronounces the happy couple husband and wife “by the powers vested” in him/her by the state. The pronouncement may be part of a ceremony with religious trappings, but as far as the government is concerned, God has nothing to do with it. Go ask any Justice of the Peace: marriage is a universally recognized  legal contract.  Deep down, I think that’s what all any of us want.