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Once upon a time, I marched down Broadway in Portland, Oregon, behind the Dykes on Bikes with their leather vests and in front of the Radical Faeries in their skirts of swirling tulle. Some couples walked hand in hand; a few pushed strollers. Together, we shouted, “We’re here; we’re queer; we’re not going shopping!”
It was 1988, the fevered pitch of the AIDS epidemic. Too many gay men were gaunt, their faces patched with Karposi lesions. On the LGBT agenda were urgencies like health care, job protection, hate crimes and thwarting the tide of anti-gay legislation spewing from Oregon’s right wing.
And our slogan, chanted as the jubilant parade passed the flagship Nordstrom store and the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, was meant to be a playful poke in the eye of all that was “straight” — a loose term meaning not just “heterosexual,” but mainstream, close-minded, drained of creativity and zest.
Back then, I knew few lesbian or gay couples who had been together longer than five years, and even fewer who had consecrated their love with a commitment ceremony. When they did, it was a kind of civil disobedience, a brazen act fraught with angst: Would the parents even come? Would someone’s evangelical aunt respond to the invitation with a Bible passage highlighted in screaming yellow? Would Western civilization crumble as the couple spoke their vows?
Civil marriage was such an impenetrable fortress, so emblematic of our exclusion, that some of my gay and lesbian pals refused to attend their straight friends’ weddings. We critiqued marriage as an institution that enshrined male power, female subservience and a single, narrow definition of family. We didn’t want any part of it.
Night and day
Fast-forward a quarter-century. Such a long time. Such a cultural blink of the eye. AIDS is no longer a death sentence. Marriage equality is the law in 17 states and the District of Columbia. Google “gay and lesbian weddings” and you get, at the top of a very long list, a commercial website with links to florists, bands and photo-booth rentals. We’re here, we’re queer, and we’re registered at Crate & Barrel.
Suddenly, to be an unmarried gay or lesbian couple — especially one like my partner and me, together for 23 years and happily unwed — is to be a renegade, even among our own dear, queer kin.
In the past year, we’ve attended the wiccan handfasting of our friends Peg and Linda, who legally tied the knot in Maryland before jumping a broom in front of a circle of witnesses. Our pals Marc and Andrew married on the beach in Delaware, then hosted a reception at home for family and friends; they offered sweet, soulful toasts and fed each other morsels from the tiered chocolate cake, which was — naturally — topped with two grinning plastic grooms.
Our friends have jumped aboard the marriage boat for the same reasons people have always wed. For love. For tax advantages. For community and spiritual affirmation. For a green card that allows a foreign-born partner to live here legally.
“You guys should get married, too,” insists our 12-year-old daughter. Not long ago, she used to pair up household objects in coupled bliss: the shampoo was married to the conditioner, the spoon wedded to the fork. Marriage, to her, means a big party, a cake, a shopping trip with Bubie for a fancy dress. And speaking of Bubie, my mother has also weighed in. “Are you two thinking of getting married, now that it’s legal in New York and New Jersey?” she asked recently. “I mean, it might be a tax savings.” I have a feeling she was thinking about the wedding Elissa and I never had, and how it might not be too late to slip under the chuppah.
Renegades once more
At a recent dinner, the company included my best friend, partnered for 10 years to a woman and now split; a pair of women who had a commitment ceremony 15 years ago; and us. The talk turned to marriage. Divorced Best Friend was cynical: Marriage doesn’t guarantee that love will last. Longtime Lesbian Couple was practical: Shouldn’t we all get married to protect our kids, our investments and our homes?
As for Elissa and me, we’re rebels, once again. But this time, it’s not the “straight” world we’re bucking. This time, it’s a choice. We could get married, and maybe we should (my daughter, my mother and my accountant seem to have reached consensus). But for now, we’re sticking with our quarter-century of committed, loving partnership and the patchwork of documents that provide its legal ballast: powers of attorney for finances and health care; the New Jersey birth certificate that names both of us as parents of our daughter; our house and cars, all titled to the two of us.
We’re as married as we want to be. That stance feels increasingly lonely, harder than ever to explain. As more and more friends take on the mantle of matrimony and the language that goes with it — Andrew proudly called Marc “my husband” just before he smeared cake all over his beloved’s lips — calling Elissa my “partner” starts to sound euphemistic, dodgy, even a little second-class.
I miss the days when “partner” was a radical term to use for my beloved. I miss the collective joy of agitating from the margins, skipping up Broadway with our rainbow flags and our “chosen families” of lovers and ex-lovers, friends, co-workers and neighbors. Even in the midst of illness, death and right-wing vitriol, there was a giddy sense of purpose: Let the tourists gawk and the Saturday shoppers trundle in and out of Nordstrom. We had more pressing matters on our minds.
The day after the Supreme Court struck down DOMA, I was in the kitchen, making coffee with my housemate, a 28-year-old self-described genderqueer woman whose partner is trans. “So, are you and Elissa going to get married?” she asked. I hesitated: Would this be one more conversation in which I’d have to explain and defend our outlier choice?
“Um, probably not,” I said, then dropped my voice to a stage whisper. “I don’t actually believe in marriage.”
Jessica laughed. “You don’t have to whisper to me. I don’t believe in it, either. Neither do most of my friends.” For Jess’s kin — a group that includes trans people of all genders, gay boys, androgynous dressers and genderqueer girls — marriage is so last-century, a relic reinforcing a moribund way of thinking about sexuality, identity and family-making. Look at that: A new cohort offering vigorous, intelligent critique of the status quo, challenging the notion that health care, tax breaks and societal approval should be parsed based on whom and how you love.
Don’t get me wrong. I cried with amazement and happiness the day the Supremes said no to DOMA. I’m glad that legislatures and courts and a vast majority of the American public have come around to the idea that love is love and that it’s unjust to deny some people the benefits that come with civil marriage. But I don’t want to lose sight of the big picture beyond our cozy partnerships, the places where we still must ally with the dispossessed: issues of poverty and hunger, health care and schools, the gap that yawns wider every year between those who have and those who are desperately in need.
That morning, Jess and I clinked our coffee mugs in solidarity: the 50-something feminist, the 20-something activist. We’re still here. Still queer. Delighted to dance at your wedding … and, later, to take to the street.