originally published in I Do, I Don’t: Queers on Marriage (Suspect Thoughts, 2004)
On the morning of February 12, 2004, a friend called to tell me about California’s first same sex marriage held at San Francisco City Hall. I was surprised to be learning about it from this man who’d been a founding member of the Mattachine Society in Los Angeles in the early 1950s and now lived a quiet life in the suburbs of San Jose.
How perfect that Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon, leaders in the gay and lesbian communities for decades, had been chosen to be the first couple to be legally married. I couldn’t imagine a more appropriate pair to advance the cause for equal civil rights for gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgendered individuals. Nor a more appropriate date: two days before Valentine’s Day, the most romantic day of the year, and the anniversary of their meeting over fifty years ago. How commendable and courageous of Gavin Newsom to confront California state law as his first act as mayor.
Suddenly the floodgates had opened, and couples were lining up to get married. The next afternoon, Friday the 13th, my friends Will and you be called inviting me to come over and meet them as they stood in line for a 2:00 o’clock appointment to be married by supervisor Aaron Peskin. I arrived in San Francisco City Hall to find it filled with a positive energy that was absolutely palpable. Couples of all ages, sizes, colors, shapes filled the Rotunda with their friends, their children, flowers and finery. Some pairs carefully dressed identically, some in considered high butch/femme. Some pairs dashed over in their street clothes. Everyone was jubilant. They were finally getting what they had always wanted. I was happy for them, sincerely. It was a momentous occasion on many level. I quickly found my friends and held their eight-month old daughter, Stassa, while they signed the papers. UB’s sister had brought a beautiful cake, other friends appeared with a bottle of chilled champagne. We all sped upstairs to Supervisor Peskin’s office where I relinquished Stassa long enough for her to be changed and dressed in her wedding togs.
Suddenly Aaron burst into the office. “Don’t look at the clock,” he commanded. Of course we all did. It was exactly 2:00. “There’s a hearing being convened right now and at any moment we could be served an injunction to stop this proceedings.” I had noticed the anti-marriage demonstrators outside City Hall but had paid little attention. Peskin’s announcement dramatically heightened the urgency of this historic event. Newly revised documents were quickly filled out and signed. When Aaron called for two witnesses, I was honored that Will and UB asked me to be one of them. I tried not to tremble as I signed my name on the form. We dashed down the hall and slipped into the ornately carved Board of Supervisors chambers where the simple ceremony was performed. I found myself choking up and fighting back tears watching these two sturdy men looked deeply into each other’s eyes as Aaron pronounced them “spouses for life.” Laughter, applause and then the flash of cameras punctuated the proclamation as I blew my nose. In my head I heard the lyrics from Sweet Charity: “I love to cry at weddings …I walk into a chapel and get happily hysterical.”
Back into errands offices the merriment continued over cake and toasts of champagne. “Are we supposed to take these back down to the office?” one of the new grooms innocently asked. After a flurry of confusion and contradictory information it was determined that the forms must be taken downstairs and be filed immediately. UB set down his cake and champagne and flew out of the office. This was all so new that nobody knew exactly what the procedure was.
The giddy celebration continued. “When are you getting married?” someone asked me. My response surprised me. “I don’t believe in marriage.” It was true. I realized that this was not, had never been my issue. I wondered if my reticence was connected to the relationship I was currently in. No, I realized that I felt positive about my relationship with Allen, that after weathering a series of storms we were continuing to grow together.
Despite the fact that we had watched the marriage battle being waged across the country –Vermont Hawaii Massachusetts — Allen and I had never discussed marriage as a personal option. When George W. Bush announced his support of a constitutional amendment to define marriage is between a man and a woman I was appalled. I realized that I believed more in the sanctity of the U.S. constitution than in the institution of marriage. If this ridiculous legislation becomes law who, I wondered, will define the terms of what is a man and what is a woman. Many of my friends invite identify as transgender, transsexual, transvestite, intersex or some other category indicating the fluidity of their sexual and or gender identity. Their legal sex may or may not be the one they know themselves to be.
With all the attention suddenly being paid to marriage my perverse nature was provoked. A few days later, walking to City Hall one afternoon with Allen to attend another wedding I confessed that I was getting into the spirit of things. I was feeling left out. I wanted to be able to say we’d participated in an event as significant as Stonewall. I have an idea, I told him. He listened for my plan. I’ll marry my best friend and you can marry your best friend. The look on his face immediately made me realize my mistake. He had been half expecting a romantic proposal of matrimony and I was looking for another way to subvert the system. Fortunately for me, he found the humor in my misguided scheme and held my hand as we strode across Civic Center Plaza.
When I first came out of the game man, my very first thought was: Terrific, now I won’t have to get married live in the suburbs and raise children. The models in my middle class upbringing hadn’t been terribly positive. Despite repeatedly singing the chorus of “Get me to the church on time,” I realized that I would never hear those bells.
I have been in a series of romantic relationships, some short-lived others long-term. Sometimes we lived together, sometimes separately. Sometimes we pledged monogamy, other times not. I watched my friends straight and gay and lesbian and bisexual to see how they were constructing their relationships. I took notes. I tried to determine what was working for them and what wasn’t. I couldn’t quite figure it out. Sure, I knew about the importance of communication and commitment but there seemed to be something more, an elusive ingredient that cemented the whole thing. I wanted my relationships to be bigger, better, different than the ones I was seeing.
In the early 1990s I registered as a domestic partner with the man I’ve been living with for seven years. We signed the form at City Hall along with another couple, toasted our happiness with champagne, and enjoyed a lovely dinner together. We sent out announcements, received supportive cards and generous presents. There’s a photograph of the four of us, somewhere. A year later I had left that man, realizing that something was wrong, not knowing what or how to work on the relationship. Splitting up our belongings was arduous. We argued about the house, cars, artwork and household items that we purchased together. Minor possession suddenly became valuable and important. We finally engaged a mediator to help us disentangle. I returned to City Hall to fill out the form “annulling” the partnership. Even now when I remember that I no longer own a specific book or dish or CD I quip that “I lost it in the divorce.” I certainly was not going to do that again, I vowed. I realized how much I loved living alone. More unsuccessful relationships followed. “I’m not going to participate in gay marriage until I know there is gay divorce,” one friend cynically quipped.
In Pride 04, this year’s glossy bloated book of text and photographs celebrating a month of GLBT activities, a letter from Gavin Newsom proclaims, “I believe strongly that all couples deserve to be treated equally under the law.” Say what? I thought this country was based on equal rights for all individuals. Now here is another legal social reinforcement of dyadic relationships. Count me out. I had hoped that in the struggle for equal rights, marriage might be shown to be an antediluvian institution to be demolished, not emulated. I don’t believe anyone should be able to get married. Or rather, I believe that everyone — straight or gay or somewhere in between, male or female or somewhere in between, monogamous or open or somewhere in between — should have the legal right to a civil union. Then, if desired, they can arrange for a religious wedding to supplement or buttress it. Marriage, the public endorsement of a private relationship, is something that can be done at a religious site in one’s backyard or not at all.
And what about domestic partnerships? Even the term confuses me, implying as it does cohabitation. I have friends who have been in committed relationships for decades who prefer not to live together. How are their relationships categorized? And what about the people involved in or open to more than one primary relationship. My experience is more complicated than binary systems: male/female, married/single, black/white, straight/gay, assimilationist/activist, essentialist/constructionalist…
Some days I see all this focus on marriage is a rather sad aping of an outmoded heterosexist patriarchal system. Other days I see it as old-fashioned activism, civil disobedience, a militant march down a flower-filled aisle for much deserved human rights. I understand the need for protection of property, children, health care, immigration and other tangible aspects of partnership. Perhaps this is the way to do it. I don’t think so I am watching more and more my friends buying houses, raising children, and now getting married. I support them wholeheartedly, just as I support equal rights for everyone. Just don’t expect me to get married. During this presidential campaign, it appeared that the religious right had hoped this might be an important issue; it seems like no one really cares. Still, it remains disconcerting to hear how our lives and our loves are able to be discussed and debated as if we were animals in a zoo.
I had hoped writing this essay might change my thinking, might move me from my position of profound ambivalence to one of greater empathy or understanding. Even now when I’m asked whether I support gay marriage I wholeheartedly reply: I do
But I’m not getting married in the morning.