Married in Stages
Thinking it over in the light of the Supreme Court's history-making, family-honoring twofer of equality-enhancing decisions, I realize that my husband and I got married in stages. This could, I suppose, be true of any couple who end up at the altar; but I suspect that there's more to it in our case, and I think it's a gay thing.
After all, for the first 19 years of our relationship, we were not allowed the benefits and protections of marriage. When we finally could say our vows and have them mean something legally, it was a covenant with limited civil scope, recognized only in Massachusetts. In the nine years since then, the lonely toehold of family freedom has expanded to 12 states and the District of Columbia, with California set to regain marriage rights in as little as a month and a further two states distinct possibilities for marriage equality in the near future.
But even before then, our marriage was a long process -- starting with our incomprehensibly long courtship. Who, even among straight couples, meets in September and then does such a drawn-out mating dance that they don't get down to business until the following May? If it had been a sitcom, I'd have tuned it out mid-season.
Then there were the bumps, swerves, and jags along the road to simply coming out. (I know straights sometimes have to resort to hiding in closets when friends of their partners drop in, but it's especially irksome when you're a gay college student... who's in the closet to begin with... and who's then asked to, well, hide in the closet. And don't even get me started on the time when I was compelled to flee through the window of his dorm room.)
Five years into our relationship, he moved abroad for work. We spent a year apart. Were we together? Had we gone our separate ways? Things came into focus when he came back to the States to pay a visit. We were sharing a shower (listen, I'm from the desert; it's the eco-friendly thing to do) when he asked me to pass the soap, and followed that with, "With you marry me?"
I gave it some thought. "Will you marry me?" I rejoined.
"Then," I said, as I handed him the soap, "I will."
But marriage for us back (1990!) meant something very different from what it would mean fourteen years later, when we had returned to America and settled in Boston. As the date approached when marriage would come to America, landing like a latter-day Mayflower on the shores of Massachusetts, I broached the subject of legal marriage to my husband.
Not that we needed the state or a church or anybody else to tell us that we were married; we knew that for ourselves. But we had also tolerated a huge amount of anxiety, difficulty, and expense as an unmarried couple trying to deal with bureaucracies foreign and domestic during our years abroad. As a married couple, we'd never have had to deal with all of that. Civil marriage may not have changed a bit of the internal situation of our commitment and devotion, but it could, and would, have a huge effect on the externals: How governments, and acquaintances, and employers, and even family members looked at us, and the treatment they accorded us.
At first, my husband was dismissive of the idea. But then, as he made his way to work on a cold and snowy February morning in 2004, he had an epiphany and a change of heart. He phoned me on his cell; I picked up on our landline. (I'm happy to be at the forefront of social stuff, but I'm a bit of a slow adapter when it comes to technology.)
"Yes," he said.
So it came to be that on May 21, 2004, we gathered with friends and family from near and far and entered a very traditional marriage by saying our very traditional vows. I mean -- honestly, we didn't want to "change" or "redefine" marriage. We simply wanted to participate in it.
Now here we are, post-DOMA, post-Prop 8. In the eyes of the law, we are more married than we were a week ago. The federal government will no longer penalize us financially every year at tax time simply because we, unlike mixed-gender married couples, were shunned when it came to filing jointly. We won't be thrashed financially if it comes to inheritance issues, or spousal Social Security benefits. Bit by bit, we've been granted more complete entrance into the cathedral of civil marriage with all its privileges and protections. We're not there yet, but one day soon, perhaps we shall have achieved true and genuine marriage equality.
So, as I say, it's been a matter of becoming married by degrees. Our legal bond has developed in a manner not unlike the bond gay and lesbian families have established with this nation, which step by step has responded to our courtship -- the suit we've paid with all our winning charm and our most heartfelt arguments -- and become more and more wedded to the notion that, hey, we do kinda look good in a tux... so why should we be denied a place at the altar?