Now that We Can, Maybe We Won’t


When the Supreme Court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act, thousands took to the San Francisco streets. That day, I joined in on the mirth, and then came home to Wendy, my beloved partner of five years, beset with the glow that only a joyous mob can inspire. Here was the conversation that ensued:

Me: It was super cool! Everybody was smiling and dancing and congratulating each other. Gays, straights, kids, dogs!

Wendy (edge in her voice): Really. So what were you celebrating?

Me (queasy feeling growing in stomach): Um. What do you mean?

Wendy: You don’t even believe in marriage.

Me: It’s Marriage equality. I believe in equality, and stuff.

Wendy: (stony silence.)

The DOMA decision was followed quickly by the Prop 8 decision, and things in our house darkened. The congratulations continued, but now I whispered sotto voce that the whole situation was bringing up “issues.” Issues, as in tears, recriminations, and soft objects thrown to the floor. Issues, as in Wendy wanting to get married but knowing that she had fallen for someone who had nothing less than contempt for the institution. Issues, as in me shouting, “I’m not against commitment, I’m against prison.”

We knew we differed on marriage. But it was an academic disagreement, about other people, other lives. I hardly gave a thought to how the Supreme Court cases would affect us personally. We shouldn’t have been blindsided, but we were, as if a movie asteroid, calculated to give us a narrow berth, had instead smashed into our world. The movie asteroid never does this. It misses or is shot down by the sassy heroine. But the sassy heroine was partying in the streets, celebrating marriage equality and paying us no mind.

It wasn’t just our household that was experiencing civil unrest. I overheard one lesbian say that she and her partner of ten years were so at odds over the issue they had simply tabled it. Another nodded with sympathy. Her partner was a marriage-phobe too. “But I think she’s coming around to it,” she said, the hope in her voice fragile and shimmering.

rumpus_marriageFor the record, I strongly believe in civil rights. I think people should have the equal right to make stupid decisions as well as smart ones. So I knew this was a momentous time for gays in this country. But in the deepest part of my heart, I resented the five justices. Why couldn’t they see past the Constitution and consider my private life? Didn’t they realize that in granting marriage equality they were also inadvertently handing out a myriad of attendant “issues”? Now we were like straight couples around the world. Marriage had become part of our relationship equation. We, too, would be agonizing about whether to get hitched. Friends and family would join in, pressuring one way or the other.

Suddenly, this kind of equality seemed unfair: for a long time it was so hard to be gay—our jobs at risk, our relationships secret, our bodily safety uncertain—but we had nurtured one small satisfaction: certain social pressures didn’t apply. I had watched with detached concern as my straight friends arrived at the invisible but palpable boundary between “seeing each other seriously” and “wasting each other’s time because it isn’t going anywhere,” and struggling with what to do. Split or marry? That was the template presented. But it wasn’t one I would ever have to actually deal with. Yes, gays did ask each other for permanent commitments. But without the legal trappings and public acknowledgement, it remained a foggier concept, and one that was easy to dodge.

Later in the week, we discussed it again. When I say “discussed,” I mean that tears flowed, noses were blown, and in between, some words were said. Also, there was whining, mostly on my part. All on my part, actually. I whined to cover up what was now obvious: I had no idea what I was talking about. My stance on marriage was high on emotion, but low on logic, because I’d never had to articulate it before, to myself or anyone else. So I stopped whining (momentarily) and ticked off a list of good reasons for my anti-marriage argument. I covered the psychological: My parents were divorced. I covered the political: Why are we agreeing to the institutions of the oppressor? I covered the semantic: What is this word “marriage” and why can’t we just carry on as we are, happy, together, choosing each other every day? In a desperate move, I even covered Eastern religions: There’s no such thing as permanence. Why engage in a contract about forever if everything changes all the time?

Even as I spoke, I could hear how ridiculous I sounded. Really, though, was I any more ridiculous than marriage enthusiasts? They spouted words like thick and thin and eternal love. But straight people had long ago screwed up those concepts. Britney Spears was married for 55 hours. Newt Gingrich had an affair on his first wife while she was fighting cancer, and on his second while trying to impeach Clinton for his indiscretions with Monica Lewinsky. What was this institution being passed to us gay people anyway? It seemed less like a regal mantle and more like a hand-me-down shirt. It was something stained with grass and pizza from its previous owner, then discarded into a bin marked Free. It was now being handed with pincered fingers and an upturned nose to the first poor sucker who claimed to need it.

“I’m not Britney Spears,” Wendy said. She then expounded on her reasons for marriage. She wanted a safe framework from which to discuss problems—we couldn’t just walk out on each other in a snit if we had promised each other in front of all our friends that we wouldn’t. She believed marriage could be a place in which we would thrive. She was sure her parents experienced the usual difficulties, but they were still happy together. Finally, if marriage meant so little to me, why not just do it? My reasons vacillated between marriage as a completely impotent, broken system (and therefore not worth doing) to an institution so remarkably powerful it would keep unhappy people together like superglue (and therefore something to strenuously avoid). Which was it, really?

At the time of this writing, we have come to no decision. But we are both reexamining our beliefs on marriage, and I am trying to discuss the issue with a semblance of clarity and open-mindedness. The Supreme Court has acknowledged that gay relationships matter, so it’s time for me to look at the institutions straight people have set up with similar judicious care. One thing is clear: Equal rights aren’t for the faint-hearted. They come with an equal share of headaches and joys.


Rumpus original art by Wendy MacNaughton

Caroline Paul is the author of the memoir Fighting Fire and the historical novel East Wind, Rain, a Bay Area bestseller. Her next book is Lost Cat, a story of love, desperation and GPS technology, due out by Bloomsbury in early 2013. More from this author →