Changing my mind about getting married — but don’t call me ‘wife’

     From left: Anndee and Elissa (Image courtesy of Anndee Hochman)

    From left: Anndee and Elissa (Image courtesy of Anndee Hochman)

    Six months ago, in this very space, I wrote about saying no to marriage. Though the Supreme Court had struck down DOMA, though my partner and I had watched friends cross state borders to legalize their unions, I held firm, an outlaw among my own queer kin. Then, on May 20, Pennsylvania became the 19th marriage-equality state.

    The trouble with print is that it never changes its mind.

    The science fiction/fantasy writer Ursula K. LeGuin said that. At least, that’s what I remembered her saying in an essay she wrote, then republished 11 years later, with her own second (and third) thoughts added in italics.

    But when I looked back at the piece, what LeGuin had actually written was this:

    “It is rather in the feminist mode to let one’s changes of mind, and the processes of change, stand as evidence — and perhaps to remind people that minds that don’t change are like clams that don’t open.”

    Six months ago, in this very space, I wrote about saying no to marriage. Though the Supreme Court had struck down DOMA, though my partner and I had watched gay and lesbian friends dash across state borders to legalize their unions in Maryland and Delaware, though I was being urged to follow suit by my mother, my daughter and my accountant, I still held firm, an outlaw among my own queer kin.

    Then, on May 20, Pennsylvania became the 19th marriage-equality state. I’d always figured my home turf would be one of the last holdouts, clinging to the norm of heterosexual marriage along with conservative backwaters like Mississippi and Arkansas.

    My friend Charles buzzed me: “So … are you two going to get married?” I typed back my ambivalence; he understood immediately. “Yeah, like after all this time, you need Governor Corbett to validate your relationship?” he e-mailed. “Meh. Probably not.”

    Exactly. Pennsylvania’s recognition felt almost insulting, a too-little-too-late nod to the family that we — alongside so many other LGBTQ people — have been creating since before marriage equality was a gleam in an activist’s eye. I didn’t want a legal marriage to imply that we were only now, with the approval of the Commonwealth, becoming legit. A piece of paper, no matter how official, doesn’t usurp the slow accrual of road trips and moving vans, laundry and arguments, kisses and Scrabble games … a quarter-century’s tedium and joy.

    But after the Pennsylvania decision, my partner, Elissa, started delivering her Talking Points. The first was economic: Did I know that, even though we own our century-old Victorian as joint tenants with right of survivorship, the unmarried survivor would have to pay estate taxes that amounted to 15 percent of half the value of the house?

    While I was doing the math, two of our best friends, together for 20 years, decided to legalize their partnership with a trip to City Hall and a small back yard ritual. The rabbi made sure to note that they were already married in the eyes of their friends, colleagues and 12-year-old daughter; the ceremony, she declared, was a recognition that “the state of Pennsylvania has finally caught up.” They blessed and sipped wine. I blotted tears.

    Then, at a family party, I chatted with a cousin whose partner had died at the age of 51, before legal marriage was possible in their state. My cousin had bitter stories of hospital-room jockeying with her partner’s siblings for the authority to make health-care decisions, along with byzantine post-mortem paperwork and steep inheritance taxes on the house they’d shared. “Even though my partner made more money, I’m not entitled to Social Security survivor benefits,” she explained. “I didn’t believe in marriage, either. But you two should do it. Really.”

    When an idea pings three times, I pay attention. And this time, there was a fourth: a remarkable play we saw in New York. “The City of Conversation” focuses on a liberal firebrand who plays politics from her Georgetown dining room through presidential administrations from Carter to Obama. Her son marries his Reaganite girlfriend, goes to work for a Republican senator and — in the midst of the fight over Robert Bork’s nomination to the Supreme Court — issues an ultimatum to his mother: If she publicly decries Bork in an op-ed piece, he will sever their relationship, and she will never see her grandson again.

    Mom delivers the article. Son makes good on the threat. Twenty-one years go by. In the final, wrenching act, the now 27-year-old grandson shows up with his African-American male lover, on the eve of Obama’s first inauguration, to reconcile with the grandmother he barely remembers. And she urges the pair to marry. That’s what we were working for all those years, she tells her grandson; that’s why I took the risk of losing you — to help create a world in which you two, and so many others, could love and live.

    By the time the curtain fell, I wasn’t the only one in tears. But the salty streams, true as they were, didn’t melt my principles.

    Yes, I’m thrilled that so many states now recognize that love is love, gratified that so many judges have ruled queer people are no less entitled to the many benefits that come with state-sanctioned couplehood.

    But as a feminist who entered puberty just as Ms. magazine was born, how can I not recoil at the sexist history of civil marriage — a tidy handshake between men to control the lines of property and paternity — and its exclusionary perks? I’m not interested in “tying the knot,” “getting hitched” or any other idiom of binding and subjugation. I don’t want to be anyone’s wife.

    What’s more, I worry that the push for marriage equality (not to mention all that gift-registering at Crate & Barrel) has sidetracked the queer community from other urgent concerns — poverty and hunger, health care and schools — blinding us to places where we still must ally with the dispossessed.

    I don’t really believe in civil marriage. But as a good friend pointed out, I don’t believe in God, either, and yet I light Shabbat candles every Friday and regularly chant from the Torah at my Reconstructionist synagogue.

    “You don’t have to like the idea of marriage,” Elissa said. I’d lost count of her arguments by then. “You can critique it all you want. But this is about the long term. I want to be protected. I want you to be protected.”

    In the end, she had me at Talking Point #1. I’m old enough to swallow the rough truth that even when love endures, we don’t. Sooner or later (much later, let’s hope), one of us will be left with a stack of condolence notes and the chilly side of the bed. Why add an $18,000 tax burden to that grief?

    The trouble with print is that it never changes its mind.

    But people do.

    And so, we will go to City Hall for that goldenrod-colored certificate, then have a very small ritual witnessed by our parents and our daughter, officiated by a rabbi-friend. I will probably cry, as I have cried each time Elissa and I married our fortunes together — when we exchanged rings after seven years; when we celebrated our 18th anniversary with a boisterous party; when we bought the house; when we had the kid.

    I plan to approach legal marriage with the same skepticism I carry into synagogue, and with the same willingness to be moved — not by a prayer book’s ancient words, not by the newly inked laws of Pennsylvania, but by the marvel of relationships that deepen, tangle, and change in whatever space we call sacred.

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