Or, Thirty Years of Queer Delight
Facebook already knows how this story ends, so I might as well tell you right up front: Reader, I married her.
It was an impulse move thirty years in the making, one made possible by the voters of Maryland and finally irresistible because of a ballsy woman named Edith Windsor. We billed it as a celebration of our thirtieth anniversary and, “by the way, a wedding,” which was our way of saying that what mattered most to us was not the change in our legal status but the three decades of shared life and love that had preceded it. It was a small, elegant, impromptu affair, which we planned and executed in three weeks in the middle of an already insanely busy semester. (How busy? The night before the wedding, I took a job candidate out to dinner while relatives and out-of-towners were gathering at the house.) We were able to pull it off because a trusted caterer happened to be available and a dear friend is an interwebz-certified secular officiant. My advice? If you’re going to get married, don’t spend more than three weeks planning and executing it. Ignore the whole marriage industrial complex. I got married in a ten-year-old suit and never got around to buying new shoes for the occasion. The suit looked great and I kicked off my old shoes an hour after the ceremony. The world didn’t end. Also: Serve mojitos. And shrimp with dry ice wafting off the platter. No one will notice your shoes if there are festive cocktails and a dry-ice haze hanging pleasantly in the air.
Fine, Madwoman, I hear you muttering. You’ve told us the how of your wedding. What about the why?
What, you can’t just congratulate me? I’m not sure I owe you an explanation, but, having publicly proclaimed myself a marriage resister, I suppose I can understand why you might expect one. It’s simple, really. I stand by everything I’ve ever said against marriage: It’s not necessarily the best way to organize intimacy, it’s a terrible way to distribute benefits and protections that all citizens should have, and it’s an obscene (and probably unconstitutional) way for states to enforce judgments about who and how people love. At the same time, it is, at the moment, the best way to secure a relationship legally and financially. The Woman Formerly Known as Goose and I have already been together for thirty years. We are not getting any younger. We’ve reached a point in our lives where such security feels both appealing and necessary. As I explained to a friend, I may be ambivalent about marriage, but I’m not ambivalent about my relationship. It’s my future. I want to protect it. Besides, I’ve been working to create change from inside institutions my entire career. I’ll treat marriage the same way I’ve treated academia: I’ll resist and subvert it from within. And I’ll continue to argue against compulsory marriage and for the full range of queer intimacies. I’ve always been a firm believer in the value of being able to walk and chew gum at the same time or, as a more eloquent pal put it on Facebook, of being able to balance the both/and.
To the queer purists who would dismiss such talk as a load of self-justifying bourgeois crap, I say, fine. You win the cool contest. I understand the romance of precarity and marginalization in queer culture, the veneration for all things anti-normative. I enjoyed my outlaw status and have mixed feelings about giving up my strongest claim to it. I was and am proud of the sturdy, resilient alternative to legal marriage that WFKG and I lovingly built and sustained. On the other hand, I also experienced the terrible insecurity of that alternative one day in 1994, when my partner nearly bled to death on an operating table in a Catholic hospital. I sat for nine excruciating hours in a surgical waiting room, not knowing what was happening to her and not at all sure that the medical power of attorney she had given me would be respected. A volunteer at the desk had shaken my confidence when I asked her to call the OR to try to find out why the surgery was taking so much longer than expected. “You’re not family?” she said in the course of our exchange. “Well, I don’t know if the doctor will talk to you at all.” Live through a moment like that and then tell me you wouldn’t do everything you possibly could to assure you’d be able to care for the person you love in a medical crisis.
More recently, I ran into an old friend in the grocery store, someone I hadn’t seen in a few years. We chatted in the produce aisle, catching up and kvetching about the winter storm we were both preparing for. She told me she and her partner had sold their sweet bungalow and moved into a condo near the store in which we stood. “That sounds like a great idea,” I said. “I love our house, but there are days when I’m sick of taking care of it.” She smiled and nodded, then paused briefly before saying quietly, “Well, I got this diagnosis a couple of years ago.” “Oh, no!” I said, and to my quizzical look she matter-of-factly replied, “I have Alzheimer’s.” I was astonished by the news and pained for my friend, who is probably in her mid-60s and has lived as healthy and mindful a life as anyone I know. She’s a Buddhist, a vegetarian, a yoga teacher, for heaven’s sake! The encounter forcefully reminded me of things we all know but generally avoid acknowledging: That virtue isn’t necessarily rewarded, that life is a crap shoot, that the bottom can suddenly and inexplicably drop out of everything, re-arranging the world and one’s way of moving through it. That chance encounter had a lot to do with my decision to say to WFKG, “Let’s do this. Anything can happen. We need to put ourselves in the best possible position to manage the worst possible circumstances.” She agreed.
The ceremony was simple and sweet, performed in front of the fireplace in our great room thirty years to the day after we spent our first night together. We reaffirmed vows we made in our 1989 commitment ceremony while the rings we have worn since that day were passed around in a small silk bag and lovingly re-warmed by each guest. As part of my vows, I surprised WFKG by singing to her, John Lennon’s “Grow Old With Me,” which is based on a poem by Robert Browning and is one of the last songs ever written by my beloved’s favorite Beatle. I hadn’t sung in public since my killer performance as Mona Kent in Dames at Sea in high school, but the song’s tender lyric so eloquently expresses what love and commitment feel like in the middle of life that I was willing to risk humiliating myself in front of a group that included a number of professional singers and musicians. By obsessively studying Mary Chapin Carpenter’s beautiful rendition of the song I managed a creditable performance, but I did have to make one key, queer revision to Lennon’s lyric. Where he writes, “Spending our lives together,/Man and wife together,” etc., I sang
Spending our lives together,
Nobody’s wives together
World without end
World without end
In last year’s anniversary post, I wrote that the term “wife” is for me beyond reclamation, rooted in and saturated by gender-based inequalities that persist in custom if not in law. “I don’t need it,” I declared. “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” in her poem “I’m ‘wife’–.” A year later and newly arrived in the state of matrimony, I can state emphatically that my feelings toward the W-word have not changed one iota. I reject it. I will not use it, and I don’t want it used in reference to me or the person to whom I am legally married. (Note to the Associated Press: Partner, please. Even “spouse” feels weird to me, though WFKG and I have been trying it out this week.) I continue to believe that same-sex couples can and will queer the institution of marriage simply by occupying it. We can heighten the queering by refusing traditional roles and terms and by calling out marital privilege for what it is, which is perhaps why I can’t resist making jokes about only marrying WFKG for her money. The sentimentalists may cringe, but the truth is that, while my marriage may be legally meaningful, the change in status means little to me personally. It doesn’t change how I think or feel about myself or my relationship. It has no bearing on my sense of worth, belonging, or responsibility. To pretend otherwise would be to buy into the hierarchy of values that so troubles the speaker in Dickinson’s poem, as she looks back on a “Girl’s life” that is supposed to look “odd” from the comforting “soft Eclipse” of marriage. “Why compare?” asks the speaker, unable to bear or bridge the gap between what she feels and what heteropatriarchy tells her she is supposed to feel. “I’m ‘Wife!’ Stop there!” she frantically concludes.
Rather than stop there, I will use this occasion to say that perhaps it’s time to begin imagining a post-marriage LGBT politics. Many of us never wanted marriage to be the primary goal of LGBT activism and aspiration. We had more radical dreams for our relationships, our movement, and our world. We entered into the marriage struggle reluctantly if we entered it at all only because it became a fight to assure that discrimination against non-heterosexuals didn’t get enshrined not only in state laws but in the Constitution itself. In this extraordinary moment when we seem on the brink of full marriage equality nationwide, we should be thinking about how to mobilize support for, for example, economic justice, queer elder care, and protections for non-marital relationships. Some of us will be saying, “I do,” but all of us need to be asking, “What’s next?” There’s still plenty of work left to do, kids. The party was swell, but it’s time to get back into our comfortable shoes and put our queer shoulders to the wheel.