Over on the old blog, we had a tradition of anniversary posts in which an aging — and then dead — dog waxed sentimental over a couple of cranky English profs who had managed to keep company quite happily for an impressive number of years. The first of those posts ran on March 8, 2008 and was titled “Twenty-Four Years of Queer Delight.” It was followed, because the old dog was lacking in imagination and clung to a theme as fiercely as she had ever clung to any bone, by “Twenty-Five Years of Queer Delight,” “Twenty-Six Years of Queer Delight,” and “Twenty-Seven Years of Queer Delight.” We cheated a bit in 2012 and merely acknowledged the twenty-eighth year of queer delight in a post celebrating the March 12 anniversary of the blog. March involves a lot of celebrating in our household!
This year, with a new blog and a new persona, it felt weird to drag the old tradition over here, so I celebrated on Facebook instead with a mash note to the Woman Formerly Known as Goose and a recent ridiculously adorable snapshot of the two of us. It got lots of “likes” and heartwarming comments and reminded me of why I still hang out on Facebook, despite its many flaws. I like public feelings, or the nice ones anyway, and Facebook works well for making nice feelings public. I think it works less well for the airing of not nice feelings, but that is another story.
Here, though, having not written a post called “Twenty-Nine Years of Queer Delight,” I want to reflect on this anniversary within the dramatically shifting context of marriage equality in the United States. This year, for the first time, WFKG and I commemorated our durable and genuinely delightful partnership in a state that issues marriage licenses to both same- and opposite-sex couples. That felt . . . strange. Not only that, but the Supreme Court is about to take up two cases that could restore the right to same-sex marriage in California and begin chipping away at the marital apartheid that exists at the federal level because of the odious Defense of Marriage Act. It is entirely possible that by next year, when I don’t write a post called “Thirty Years of Queer Delight,” WFKG and I will be free to enter into a marriage that would be legally identical to any opposite-sex marriage in the eyes of both our state and the federal government. That would be . . . something well beyond strange.
In one of those anniversary posts over on the old blog, I asked readers to imagine that they were prohibited from having something that the vast majority of people were permitted to have, something that was generally available and widely thought to be good. Let’s say that something is ice cream, I said, and that you are enjoined from eating it “not because you are lactose-intolerant or diabetic or anything else that would make eating ice cream hazardous to your health. You are told you can’t eat it because you don’t deserve it. You are not good enough for ice cream. Indeed, you are so unfit for ice cream that the mere thought of your tasting it poses a threat to the goodness of ice cream. Stay away, the Committee to Protect the Deliciousness of Ice Cream screams, or the rest of us won’t be able to enjoy ice cream anymore!” Time passes. You construct a perfectly satisfying life in the shadow of this bizarre prohibition. You become, perhaps, a committed hater of ice cream, heaping scorn on those who eat it as dupes of the ice cream industrial complex. And then, one day, the prohibition is lifted! Suddenly you are permitted — nay, expected! — to become an eater of ice cream. Suddenly everyone wants to know what flavor you’d like and how many scoops and whether you’ll have it in a cup or a cone (waffle or sugar).
What do you say? What do you do? What do you want, and how is the condition of your wanting or not wanting changed by the lifting of the prohibition? It is, after all, one thing to say you don’t want ice cream when you are legally prevented from having it, quite another to step up to the counter, take a close look at all thirty-one flavors, and then say, “Thanks, but I think I will stick with the cheesecake. It’s really delicious.” Or perhaps you say, “By golly, I would like a triple scoop of butter pecan with hot fudge sauce and a cherry on top. And sprinkles, please, a whole bunch of rainbow-colored sprinkles.”
Three years later, that analogy seems more apt than ever. I stand at the counter, hesitant, slightly bewildered, trying to figure out what I want and why I want it, while a crowd of mostly younger people waits impatiently behind me. They can hardly wait to get their ice cream, and I am holding up the line. What the hell is the matter with me?
A few weeks ago, the Associated Press was widely criticized for seeming to ban the terms “husband” and “wife” to describe people in civil unions or same-sex marriages. Those terms would only be used “with attribution” — i.e., in quotations from one of the parties involved. A followup seeking to clarify the style policy indicated that “husband” and “wife” “could be used in AP content if those involved have regularly used those terms (‘Smith is survived by his husband, John Jones’) or in quotes attributed to them.” The clarification wasn’t sufficient to mollify some of the policy’s critics, including law scholar Nathaniel Frank, who argued that the AP’s stance “creates the perception that it is taking sides — and the losing side — in a culture war issue.” Frank goes on to explain:
[T]hose who get married have already decided about terminology. They have chosen to become a husband or wife, and that’s what they deserve to be called. Failing to recognize this means failing to recognize what the gay marriage battle has been about: achieving equal dignity by accessing the same institutions and occupying the same symbolic spaces as everyone else.
Being “married” is, after all, a collective identity, in the same way “citizen” is. Both terms connote certain responsibilities, obligations and protections, as well as a sense of dignity and belonging for which there is no substitute. They confer equality on all those who occupy them. Using such a term fairly matters in the same way the front of the bus mattered to those banned from sitting there for no other reason than to designate them as second-class citizens.
With all due respect to Frank and the many married queers I know who toss the words “husband” and “wife” around as happily as if they were indeed the rainbow-colored sprinkles on top of an ice cream sundae, I don’t think the question of terminology is nearly as settled as this critique asserts, even among same-sex couples who have hopped on the marriage bandwagon. I also don’t think the AP’s style policy is necessarily discriminatory. (Jeffrey Bloomer also takes this position in a piece he did in Salon.) One could argue that the policy acknowledges and respects the social and linguistic variety, complexity, and creativity of the alternatives to marriage that developed in LGBT communities over the years. One could also argue that the refusal to slap the label of “husband” or “wife” on everyone who marries is an indication of progress, a sign that broadening access to marriage might actually transform the institution into something more flexible and egalitarian than it has historically been. For many of us, after all, the words “husband” and “wife” don’t confer or connote equality, as Frank implies, though what he means is equality with other married people. Those terms are rooted in and saturated by gender-based inequalities that persist in custom if not in law, and some of us want nothing to do with them. There is no dignity for me in the idea of becoming somebody’s wife, and I for one am glad the Associated Press will not automatically label me that if WFKG and I ever decide to tie the knot. (Tie the knot? Good grief, people, after twenty-nine years, could it really get any tighter?)
LGBT people know well that we don’t always get to choose the names we are called, and we’ve done an impressive job of resignifying many of the terms that have been used to wound and stigmatize us. I delight in calling myself dyke and queer and admire the courage and ingenuity of those who have fought to wrest those words away from the haters and the hurters. For me, though, the term wife is beyond reclamation. I don’t need it. I don’t want it. I don’t like the feel of it in my mouth or the sound of it in my ears. It grates. It simpers. It titters and totters, uncertain of itself, as Emily Dickinson brilliantly, devastatingly shows:
I’m “wife” — I’ve finished that —
That other state —
I’m Czar — I’m “Woman” now —
It’s safer so —
How odd the Girl’s life looks
Behind this soft Eclipse —
I think that Earth feels so
To folks in Heaven — now —
This being comfort — then
That other kind — was pain —
But why compare?
I’m “Wife”! Stop there!
The quotation marks tell you everything you need to know. Access to the word “wife” is not comparable to access to the front of the bus. For many of us, indeed, it is very nearly the opposite, implying neither dignity nor liberation but, for women throughout much of American history, the loss of many rights and an independent legal existence. I participated in the battle to bring marriage equality to my home state and am proud that we were among the first states to affirm the right to same-sex marriage through a popular vote. I am also proud, however, that here in Turtle Country the attorney general issued an opinion making it clear that clerks and administrative judges who perform marriages should not assume that anyone who marries is interested in being pronounced a “husband” or a “wife.” Asked to resolve a number of questions around implementation of the Civil Marriage Protection Act, the AG recommended that all couples be offered “a choice of different terminologies or, better yet, the opportunity to choose exactly how they will be referred to in their vows. Leaving the nomenclatural decision to the parties themselves will ensure that all parties receive the ceremony they desire and, thus, remove any question of discriminatory effect.”
Gaining access to the same institutions to which others have access doesn’t mean we have to occupy them in exactly the same way, and using different terms to name the parties to a marriage needn’t diminish the dignity or stature of the marriage. Words matter, yes. And that’s why we should choose the words by which we are known as carefully as we can, understanding full well that our nomenclatural decisions are never entirely our own. Words are public property and marriages are public acts, but the terms we use can make a difference.
Happy anniversary, darling, from the aging girl who, married to you or not, will never be your wife nor call you a wife. I love you. Let’s go get ice cream. Or cheesecake. Here’s to twenty-nine and more years of queer delight, no matter what we call it.