The first time we got married, we eloped. I guess we eloped the second and third times, too, but maybe that depends on your definition of elopement. Is it just getting hitched without telling anyone you’re going to do it? Or maybe it depends on your definition of marriage.
In the fall of 2002, I was a graduate student laboring over translations of the Hebrew Bible. (Sometimes I paused to ask myself why I was bothering to translate into English a book that existed in a perfectly good English translation in the majority of American households. Mostly, I didn’t pause. Or ask.) I had, at that point, been living as a guy since my seventeenth birthday, a little over seven years before. So I was comfortable, or at least relatively established, in my identity as a man.
But I was technically female. By “technically,” I mean “by some alchemical mixture of biology, law, and social understanding.” In a more precise manner, I mean that though I looked like a guy and had changed my name (from Alice to Alex), I hadn’t had surgery and I took no hormones. I had XX chromosomes. I had a uterus. I had breasts. Under normal conditions, none of these things were ever evident.
Owing to a fluke, my driver’s license said I was male. The day I’d gone to obtain the license, the clerk at the DMV had simply gone on the basis of what she saw in front of her (I’d left both sex boxes on the form blank) and put M.
I was dating a woman. We’d been together for about two years (though we had known each other much longer), and we were engaged. We weren’t quite sure what this meant. Or we were, but only in one way: we knew we were committed to each other and wanted to spend the rest of our lives together. Hence, we would get married.
But how? The state we lived in didn’t offer any form of same sex marriage (union, conjoining, partnership, etc.), and to get married as an opposite-sex couple required birth certificates. Both of ours said female, so that wouldn’t work. That left two options.
- Go to another state and get a same-sex marriage. This would be purely ceremonial and not recognized by any other nation, state, shoe store, etc.
- Go to Vegas and get an opposite-sex marriage. I’d looked online: Vegas only required that both members of the couple produce driver’s licenses. Mine said M. Hers said F. It might work. But I suspected it might be illegal, or at least not fully legit. And I get nervous about things like that. (The very existence of my not-quite-correct license made me nervous.)
In the end, we opted for the ceremonial over the illegal and drove up to Vermont in December, eloping at a bed and breakfast with the dishwasher (the person, not the machine) as our witness. We signed the certificate for our same-sex Vermont civil union, went for a lovely snowshoe afterward, and drove home with a mix of feelings. On the one hand, I knew, internally, that I’d gotten married. Vowed to be with this person. On the other hand, externally, I didn’t know what that piece of paper meant at all.
Things change, sometimes, and sometimes not. I turned twenty-five. I still looked like I was fifteen. It got tougher to pass as a man. So I started taking shots of testosterone and soon enough looked, if not twenty-five, then at least not fifteen. We moved to another state. We told people we were married. We were. We weren’t. The state we’d moved to didn’t recognize Vermont civil unions as anything, but we did. And to whom does marriage matter anyway?
The state we moved to also had tougher laws for providing documentation in order to be issued an identity card, and I feared the days of my flukily obtained driver’s license M were numbered. So I asked my doctor to write a letter explaining that I had undergone medical gender reassignment because I took testosterone and that I should be considered male. I sent this letter to the Department of Human Services in the state where I was born, and a few weeks later, they sent back a new birth certificate: Alex Myers, male.
This felt odd. I was and I wasn’t. I was now, at this moment, male. Well, mostly, though I still hadn’t had surgery. But I hadn’t been born the way I was now. And so, though grateful for the ease that the document provided (it’s just smoother when the paper matches the appearance), staring at it—Record of Live Birth, Alex Myers, Male—it seemed to belong to someone else.
More to the point, the new birth certificate meant that my wife and I were no longer married. Our same-sex civil union was rendered void: we were no longer a same-sex couple, and Vermont did not validate opposite-sex civil unions. However, we happened to be living in one of only nine states that recognized common-law marriage. To have a common-law marriage, a couple had to meet the following criteria: live together (we did), have a joint bank account (we did), present to others as married (of course), and file taxes jointly (would happily give it a try). We went to a lawyer, just to be certain. “Sure,” we were told. “It’ll work fine, until you move to another state.” We were married again.
Years went by, and eventually, my passport expired. I’d gotten it before receiving my new birth certificate, so it still said F. I sent off an application together with my new birth certificate and asked them to adjust the sex on my passport accordingly. They replied, “We need a letter from a medical doctor.”
I replied, “My birth certificate says I’m male.”
They replied, “Your citizenship gender record says you are female. Only a letter from a doctor can change your citizenship gender.”
I had no idea that there was such a thing as a citizenship gender, but apparently we all have one, and it may or may not match the gender on one’s birth certificate. I sent off a new doctor’s letter. As I waited for the passport, I wondered if, like a birth certificate, a common-law marriage wasn’t good enough. (When I told this story to a friend, complaining of having to secure another letter, she told me I should be glad I’d changed my birth certificate when I had. Since that time, my birth state had altered its laws and it now required proof of surgery to change gender. How odd, how arbitrary. How could someone decide this is gender, this is sex, here’s the defining line?)
When the new passport did arrive, with its M, I realized that, until the blip of this passport on my life’s radar screen, I hadn’t given much thought to gender lately. Gender’s like that. I lived as a man, I remembered to give myself my shots of testosterone, it wasn’t an issue. And I hadn’t thought of marriage much lately either. Marriage is like that. I was married, I lived happily with my wife. Both entities simply were, no fancy verb needed.
But that simple existence occurred only in my own life. As I held the passport in my hand, I realized that both marriage and gender have a life beyond my own. Somewhere, my citizenship gender had been on file. Somewhere, a record of me existed that over-ruled my daily existence. Here, I was a man. There, I had been female.
I asked my wife if she would marry me again.
Everything’s different when you’re an opposite-sex couple. We went to the town clerk for our license (before, it was done in advance by mail). We each filled in identical forms at the counter. Midway down, our pens paused.
Question: Have you ever had a civil union before?
We both wrote yes. The clerk, a classic Vermonter with a home perm and tint, took our birth certificates and our licenses, examined them, handed them back. The she read over our forms. “Who was your civil union with?” she asked my wife.
“Him,” my wife responded, pointing at me.
She looked at me, and at my form. “A Vermont civil union?”
“Yes,” I said. “We used to be a same-sex couple. Now I’m male.”
“Oh.” She read through the rest of the form. “Can I see that birth certificate one more time?”
I passed it over, and she found the line she wanted. Male. Then she took a blank license form, cranked it into her typewriter, and began to clack at the keys.
For some reason, no witness is required for opposite-sex marriages, just an officiant. We held hands and vowed once more to become, to remain, to always be, married.
Maybe the day will come when my wife and I will need to get married again. Maybe there will be genderless birth certificates. Genderless marriages. Some category that doesn’t mention sex at all. Because, even with all my current identification, a perfectly matched set, I still feel that I am… and I am not…and I will be… and I have been… There’s just no noun and no verb tense. There is, however, one thing of which I am certain, regardless of what my sex might be today or have been yesterday or be regarded as tomorrow. We are, have been, will be, married, joined together in union—always.
Rumpus original art by Liam Golden.