Elisabeth: Why Get Gay Married?

“I don’t want to have to marry you
cause it’s the heteronormative thing to do
I just want our love to be free
like queer love was meant to be”

—The Traveling Millies

The other day K was walking me to the train in our liberal little Brooklyn neighborhood that people often call Sesame Street. We were holding hands and discussing (arguing) about who would take the volunteer shift at our CSA when I noticed the couple coming towards us. It was a man and a woman, pushing a cute little kid in an umbrella stroller, unremarkable except for the glare on the mother’s face. She looked at K and then she looked at me, and the hatred just oozed out. Bad. Wrong. You make me feel sick. She didn’t have to say anything—her stare said it all. And she kept watching as we passed her, which I know because I turned around to meet her gaze, just to confirm that her neck would crane that far. “That’s the first hate-stare we’ve gotten in a while,” I said breezily to K, who snorted in agreement and kissed me as I hopped on the train. I try not to let this stuff bother me, but I kept thinking about that kid. That little guy trusts everything his parents say right now, and in fifteen years he is going to have to do all kinds of unlearning, or is going to be throwing hate stares of his own.

Homophobes. You baffle me. A college friend of mine, also gay, and married, wrote recently, “I Wish My Life Were As Interesting As Homophobes Think It Is: I spent Friday night giving my cat a sponge bath.” Which, right? Lady, you’re shooting a death stare at someone who makes their own yogurt and buys organic cat shampoo. That’s where you want to direct all that hate?

As we all know by now, the Supreme Court is expected to rule on two cases related to gay marriage this month. These decisions will greatly influence me and my queer friends (and our extremely clean cats), but I haven’t spent much time thinking about the verdicts, which surprises me, since I’m a professional worrier. This is in part because the idea that the Supreme Court would opt not to afford me and other queer Americans protection from discrimination seems so ludicrous that it’s hard for me to engage. But I also feel conflicted about the staggering amount of funding and attention that the gay movement has directed towards marriage equality—even as K and I start to plan our ceremony.

One of my wedding mantras that promptly turned into a life mantra is, “It’s something, but not everything.” Finding the venue, the right ring, sending paper invites or electronic ones; these are all something, but not everything. While the right to marry is a very big something, I’m still thinking about whether marriage is the key to my personal safety and freedom to live as a queer woman.

For one thing, the very concept of marriage is limiting. Most Americans, gay or straight, don’t live in married households. This statistic, and how quickly our household compositions have changed in the past four decades, blows my mind. Even though I myself don’t (yet) live in a married household, nor do the majority of my friends, I just assume all the married people are in Queens (or something?). But that’s not really true. People don’t get married for a million reasons—maybe they’re polyamorous, or maybe they’re single women who decide to live with their best friend. Maybe they run a multi-generational household with their mother, or maybe they just don’t want to live with their long-term girlfriend. Or maybe, they just plain don’t want a partner, long-term, live-in, or otherwise.

So, if most people—gay and straight—don’t live in families headed by a married couple, that means there are a whole bunch of us missing out on the considerable benefits of marriage. Which brings me to the maybe-not-that-obvious question: why are we privileging that relationship model? Why are those 1138 rights reserved for married spouses, anyway? Friends of mine have decided to co-parent their kids, which is working out famously for everyone involved. But because they’re not married, can’t get married, and don’t want to get married, they aren’t able to take Family and Medical Leave when the other one or the other one’s kids needs help or care—even though they’re fully participating second parents for each other. Not to mention the fact that by prioritizing two-person, long-term, romantic partnerships, we’re buying into the argument that two is better than one. We’re agreeing that it’s better to be coupled; that if you’re single, it’s time to get with the program already.

The problem with focusing all of our efforts on gay marriage and making it our top advocacy priority is that we haven’t been focusing on a slew of other equally pressing other stuff. What about other basic protections, like workplace discrimination? What about economic redistribution, rights for transgender folks, and immigration rights? Why is marriage more important than any of those? I love K, but I need a paycheck and a job more than I need a wedding. In many places, if you’re gay, you can be fired by virtue of your sexuality. In twenty-nine states, your employer doesn’t need another reason. Being gay is enough. A longtime teacher was fired in Ohio, because her partner’s name was included in her mother’s obituary. Being able to get married is important, but if we shrink justice and equality to “marriage for gay people,” we’re missing an awful lot of civil rights. I worry that once we’ve won the gay marriage fight, we’ll become complacent, and marriage alone doesn’t solve all the big and little ways that gay people constantly experience discrimination.

Phew. All those arguments always gets me worked up. This is why I carried a box of chalk around my college campus, just in case I needed to chalk something political. But! All that said, I still think gay marriage is going to help. That’s why K and I have decided to get married, for a bevy of practical, personal, and political reasons. For starters, we’re looking at the same reason god-knows-how-many-straight-people-get-hitched-these-days, i.e., even with all the controversy over the Affordable Care Act making people do crazy things like get preventive care (no!), one of the few paths to health insurance in our country currently comes through spouses’ employers. And K has the Cadillac of health insurance. Of course, we’ll be paying for it in post-tax dollars (instead of pre-tax like straight couples do), spending thousands a year on our big gay health insurance. And on the personal and political front, we’re getting married because we believe in visibility. I think of Harvey Milk, and how he entreated gay people to come out, every time I pass as straight (which happens a lot, even when I wear a “dyke drama” pin on my tote bag from my friend’s lesbian musical). If what has marked the gay movement over the past forty years is waves of gay people coming out, then gay participating in the well-accepted institution of marriage pushes the dialogue further. Every co-worker who asks about my boyfriend, and then gets an earful from me about wedding planning, is seeing, hearing, and thinking more about the gays.

And, of course, we’re getting married because we make each other laugh the most. That is worthy of a big old party, with clams, and cocktails, and singing in the round. It’s going to be a time. All of those people who love us and are really excited to support us on that day and every day, all in one room! Those potential wedding dresses are still hanging out in my closet, and I get excited every time I see them.

“Gay marriage came to Iowa…and nothing happened,” K likes to say about her home state. What she means is, that while gay marriage can seem like a revolutionary act, it hasn’t created the waves of destruction that gay marriage opponents feared it would. If anything, we might be helping to contribute to a better version of marriage. Yes, we are getting married, and we also are so boring. We say hello to the co-op checker; K always tells them when they accidentally undercharge her for organic dried mango from the bulk bins (DAMN YOU K, GAME THE SYSTEM!), and we help pick up our neighbor’s overturned granny cart like the decent people we are.

In fact, given how small our neighborhood is, and how much people like to talk to each other here, there’s a fair chance we’ve run into the hate-stare couple before. Maybe we’ve made small talk about apartment-sized chest freezers while schlepping frozen compost to the farmers market, maybe I let them go ahead of me in line at the Duane Reade when their kid was having a meltdown at dinnertime the other day. I hope that eventually they will see how little we threaten their lifestyle. I hope that they’ll see that we should be allowed to do more than just marry; we should be allowed to work openly, and trans folks should be allowed to enlist in the military if that’s what they want, and immigrants should be allowed to apply for citizenship for their partners. I hope they’ll realize that expanding the marriage model is only going to improve it. For everyone. But just in case they don’t, I’m still waiting on the Supreme Court, and trying not to worry. I have a cat to sponge bathe with organic cat shampoo and a wedding to plan, after all. I’m busy.

Photo: Emily Takes Photos.

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