Why My Queer Marriage Needed a Wedding (Even Though We’re Courthouse People)

One of the questions I’ve been asked with some regularity on the book tour is a variation of the question, “Why weddings?” or “Why marriages?” There actually are layers upon layers of questions here: Why do we view marriages (and worse, engagements) as more culturally valid than anything else? And “Why a wedding?” can mean “Why a party?” or “Why the cultural monstrosity manipulatively pushed on us by the wedding industry?” When asked, I always answer that there are different reasons for everyone, and at APW we’re just trying to explore those answers. So I’m particularly pleased by the answer in today’s post from Laurel. Let’s dive in.

At one point, during the eight months my partner and I spent talking about whether we were going to have a wedding—after the even longer process of deciding that we were in it for the long haul and might consider getting married at all—she said, “But we’re courthouse people.” It’s true. We come from a long line of courthouse people. There were six people at her parents’ wedding, a number which includes the two of them and which is one fewer than at my parents’ only because they successfully kept their own parents from attending. (My dad’s parents crashed their wedding from 1500 miles away with a suitcase full of lobster bisque and sachertorte, but that’s another story for another day.) When my aunt decided to get married, she called me on a Monday and asked if I’d drive up to Reno with her on Wednesday and witness her marriage. (In the end she got married at the Oakland courthouse; there were eight people there, making it the second largest wedding in either of our immediate families.) In our unique, and somehow shared, family culture, it made perfect sense for my mother to ask if she was invited to our wedding.

So yes, we’re courthouse people. We decided we wanted the socially and culturally privileged position of marriage; even in our queerish ultra-progressive semi-radical cultural niche, people treat marriages and partnerships differently.* We saw friends get married and the way their families and complete strangers immediately understood that their relationships were now Important and Meaningful. We saw the huge outpouring of love and support our friends got when they decided to get married. It certainly makes a difference in how our families understand our relationship. There’s just one wrinkle: we’re both women.

We considered getting married in Iowa, where my parents live, but it felt unsatisfying. We’d be asking people to treat our relationship differently because we signed a piece of paper that had no legal effect where we lived. Even with a license, all it takes is one car accident in a conservative town and a nurse with something to prove, and I won’t be able to see her in the hospital. If we have kids and one of us stays home, we can’t contribute to that person’s retirement funds or personal savings without worrying about whether we’d need to pay gift tax. The license doesn’t change that.

Plus, I’ve spent a lot of time arguing that it’s not the license that makes the marriage. I believe it. Why, for my own marriage, would I make all my decisions around the license?

Even though we’re courthouse people, we’re not having a courthouse wedding. There are plenty of reasons to have a wedding—I love a party and I love bringing people together; our parents want to be there—but in the end, it’s the illegality that clinched the deal. For us to feel married, we needed to have a wedding. We needed to feel the reality that our families and friends love and support our marriage, even though the state of California doesn’t. So we’re going to have a smallish casual gay country wedding, and it’ll be the second-biggest wedding in either of our families since the 1940s. And I’m crossing my fingers that at the end of it, we’ll feel married.

*I have complicated feelings about that: On the one hand, there’s a real difference between committed and not; on the other, marriage is only sometimes the best way to tell whether people are committed. Regardless, marriage is shorthand for commitment even when your friends have radical politics.

Photos by: Author’s personal collection

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  • Such a great reflection on what marriage is and what it means. The asterisked part about committment is so true (rightly or wrongly, it just is what happens). Thanks for sharing.

  • Jessica

    The notion that you’re not really committed until you’re married is something that any long-term couple struggles with, internally and externally. Also love your asterisked comment- my boyfriend and I (together 3 years) deal with our radical lefty friends’ “When are you two finally gonna get married?! We’re due for an open bar party again sometime soon!” comments all the time. Anyway, thanks for sharing your story, and if you decide to go for a second ceremony, we’d love to have you in Iowa :)

  • I can very much relate to this post. I think a lot of our decisions have been affected by chasing that feeling of being married despite the lack of legal recognition.

  • Such a thoughtful post. Even if you don’t need a marriage license to be committed or a family, it is a good “shorthand” as mentioned above. And when else can you gather loved ones to celebrate love? I think weddings can be a great way to celebrate love, which is another reason LGBTQ couples deserve that option, too. Not that everyone has to do it (my friend and her husband did the private courthouse thing and it was totally the right choice for them) but we all deserve that social option.

    I wonder if there’s more pressure for gay/lesbian couples, particularly in states where gay marriage is legal, to have weddings as opposed to doing something much more quiet/private. It doesn’t sound like that’s the case for Laurel, but I’d be curious to hear from other same-sex couples about this one.

    • Gigi59

      I didn’t feel pressure to have a wedding. We just threw ourselves one because we hadn’t had a party for a while. I think we both would have been comfortable with a courthouse marriage.. BUT, once we called it a wedding more of our family felt obligated to show up. Calling it a wedding seemed to lend importance to the party. More of that cultural shorthand!

      • Definitely agree on the cultural shorthand! And honestly, when else can you throw a party for you and your loved ones? It’s kind of a nice excuse.

    • JoAnna

      We are doing a quick make it legal (in a state to be determined), a bigger “pseudo destination” wedding in the heartland and an at home reception (near my parents in rural Cali)… We have already been domesticated in the state of California… We want to make it legal in a state (with the hopes that nationally laws will change and we will be considered hitched in our own state).

      But we are having a wedding because we want to invite our family, friends and the like into our relationship to give it a sort of backbone/structure. To push us a little when the relationship feels hard, to support us when needed, and to cheer us on when the good times roll. And honestly, to celebrate that our families have come so far, coming to terms with who we are and loving us all the same.

      We felt no real pressure to have a wedding (but we also don’t live in a state where it’s legal, nor is our wedding in a state where it’s legal ;)… but it is an outward expression of our relationship and our intention to move forward in life together, even when it is hard.

  • Moz

    I really hope you guys feel married at the end of it. And I am sorry you can’t marry legally in California, that sucks.

    I wish you both the best xx

  • Karen

    Thank you for this post, it was very timely. My partner and I have been having the same discussion. I grew up in a church and am still very active in my church, although it is very different than the one I grew up in (from Independent Baptist to Unitarian Universalist). Getting married in a church is important to me and my partner respects that. I truly believe that a public celebration of friends and family, especially when there is no legal recognition in our state, is very important because it declares that we are family and plan to build a life together. I want our friends and family to know deep down that we are married and committed to each other for the rest of our lives and the best way to do that, I believe, is with a wedding.

    We have talked about going to D.C. to get an official marriage license (in addition to the church wedding) but came to realize that having that license does not give us any of the rights that other documents such as the healthcare power of attorney, financial power of attorney, living will, etc bestow on us. Of course those documents don’t allow us to file taxes together, allow us to have Social Security benefits, etc. And so while we would love to have the actual marriage license, until it is legal in our state I’m not sure what the point is, particularly when we have to think about what is the best use of our resources.

    Annie: after marriage became legal in New York, there were a few articles in the New York Times that talked about how a few mothers of gay men were pressuring their sons to “settle down”. I think that’s hysterical! It’s incredible how times have changed. Hopefully one day we will all be able to get the legal marriage license regardless of what state we live in.

    • Nicole

      Karen, my partner and I are in a very similar boat. Getting married in a church- or really, having a religious/spiritual ceremony- is what is most important to us for the beginning of our married relationship and in terms of what we want to portray to our families.

      It’s a bit different since we live in Massachusetts, and know that there are some rights we’ll receive wtih that legal recognition. But boy, am I NOT excited to talk to a lawyer about our position in terms of state vs. federal rights…that’ll be one sexy part of wedding planning.

      • Karen

        I agree that the legalities are not fun and sexy. I’m so glad that you can get the legal recognition of marriage. It does get complicated because federal and state don’t agree. I’m hoping that in time this will change. Sometimes I’m hopeful and other times I’m depressed. But in any case, we all must do everything we can to have our relationships recognized, if by no one else than healthcare workers who determine whether or not we are next of kin.

        • Laurel

          Because I’m a dork, I’m actually pretty excited about the legalities. Mostly as a contrast to our current technique for legally protecting our relationship, which is “lalalala I can’t heeeeaaaar you.”

          We haven’t talked much about the ceremony: the one thing we have nailed down is that we’re going to sign all the paperwork — living will, healthcare power of attorney, etc — during the ceremony.

          • Karen

            We have considered this, too. My only concern is what if something happens between now and then (at least a year from now). I hope this goes well for you!

          • I’ve worried about that too. In fact, two years ago we got the domestic partner paperwork for California, but we couldn’t convince ourselves to fill it out. It seemed like something that needed some kind of recognition and was part of the process of deciding to have a wedding (because exactly one person I told about it got all congratulatory and enthusiastic — separate but equal isn’t even *socially* equal).

            Anyway, yeah. I worry about that. If our families were less supportive I might worry more. I hope it goes well for me too! I also hope your version goes well for you!

          • Sarah

            I love the legal paperwork signing idea. Enough that that’s going into my imaginary wedding plans (for a hetero wedding).

  • Gigi59

    I’m so sorry you can’t be legally married in California. It’s such a long time coming. Speaking from the other side of the continent, my now-wife & I waited to have a wedding until our marriage would be legal in New York. And I can tell you beyond any doubt that that single moment in time when the judge pronounced us married did more to change her family’s acceptance of me than the entire 16 years of togetherness that went before it.

    Despite living together, sharing births, deaths & illness, choreographing the holidays – all of it – her family held me and our relationship at an arm’s length until we got married. It was like flipping a switch where they could suddenly ‘understand and accept’ our relationship. (I found it to be a little insulting, actually.) We were now speaking their language and they could understand us. Cultural shorthand is a powerful thing.

    I understand and agree with your ‘complicated feelings’ about commitment & marriage. While I always felt married – because in my mind that was the same thing as our commitment to each other – Sandy only felt married after the ceremony. (Which I found a little disturbing…) I will say that the act of stating vows before our family and friends, having the witness and support of all of them, made us feel more like part of their community. So, I guess it brought us both to the same place – feeling married – which is what was ultimately important.

    Congratulations and best wishes on your marriage!!

    • It’s weird how that works, right? I would have sworn up and down that our families accepted our relationship. It’s been seven years and they’ve been nothing but nice to us about it. Deciding to get married STILL changed things. My grandmother started telling people about her new granddaughter. (I about DIED of cute. She’s 91.)

      One thing that’s interesting to me is that deciding to get married has affected our relationship (in good ways) too. More of a process, at least so far, than a single moment. But I still didn’t expect it.

  • Julia

    As a woman engaged to a man, I have the privilege of knowing wherever we have our wedding, our marriage will be honored by the state and we will have all of the unsexy but important legal rights that brings.

    But I was drawn to this post because up until (and still during) the engagement, I struggled with my conflicting ideas and this question of “why” – why do I need the state to sanction my relationship when our partnership is much different from our grandparents’? Marriage is outdated and really it is a privilege, not just because rights for non-hetero couples remain state-by-state, but it’s a social class privilege, too. I still want it, and have wanted it since I realized my boyfriend is who I want to spend my life with, have children with, and take care of when we’re old. So Meg & others – what’s up with that? And I am really bummed to be missing the DC talk (northern VA really) – I have class on Monday nights.

    • Karen

      As a person in a same-sex relationship I can tell you that you need to have your marriage “sanctioned by the state” for the legal reasons. Knowing that your husband will be your next of kin and can make health and legal decisions for you in case you should become incapable of making decisions, is reason enough to get the legal marriage license. We can talk all day about marriage being an outdated institution but the reality is that two people without the legal marriage license are legal strangers under the law and have absolutely no rights regarding each other’s best interests. It is an extremely vulnerable position to be in. You should absolutely get legally married (it doesn’t help same-sex couples if you don’t!) – and do what you can to defend and support the rights of others.

      • Yep. The skepticism of marriage as an institution has led some people on the queer left to argue that marriage equality is only a concern for rich white gay men, and I think that’s completely backwards. Legal marriage is the quickest, cheapest, and easiest way to protect your relationship and make sure strangers and the state know it exists. Just look at the list of benefits of legal marriage with respect to immigration, taxes, inheritance, health, and on and on and on.

        I agree that marriage is a problematic legal institution, and I’d like to see it replaced by something more flexible that recognizes more types of family. NEVER. HAPPENING. In the meantime, extending it to everyone is the best we’ve got.

  • Leanne

    We got “illegally” married at home and legally hitched in NY. While it is nice to know that we’re official somewhere, I still struggle with the fact that when it comes to taxes and health insurance and all that jazz we still have to struggle with who we are and what we are to each other in the eyes of our state and federal government. The wonderful thing that came out of our legal wedding was the shift that happened within each of our families, as they saw us link them together forever. Congrats and best wishes!

    • McPants

      Oh, agreed! The hoops we’ve had to jump through on insurance alone are just disheartening, and we’re legally married! Tax time is coming up and let me tell you, it’s confusing as hell trying to decipher whether or not we’re “married enough” for the various stuff we have to file. Sigh. Roll on the day where we can do this without checking first to see if our relationship counts.

  • McPants

    This is a really well-written post on something that lots of committed LGBT couples struggle with. I wrote my M.A. thesis on LGBT weddings, and every single participant I interviewed talked at least a little about how having a wedding was important in terms of cultural legitimacy and respect for their relationship and commitment. When one’s relationship is socially devalued, having the traditional framework of a wedding to act as – as you so deftly remark – cultural “shorthand,” can be extremely valuable.

    My very best wishes to you both on your wedding. We’re fortunate enough to live where’s it’s legal, but it wasn’t signing the papers, it was performing a ceremony witnessed by our community that made us feel married. If your wedding is half as genuine and smart as your undergrad post, you’re going to be set.

    PS, am dying to know about the suitcase of lobster bisque!

    • I would love to read your thesis! Are you willing to share?

    • Thanks for the compliments and good wishes. It’s always a relief to hear people say that the ceremony is what made them feel married.

      The suitcase story: my parents decided on Thanksgiving weekend that they’d get married December 17. They told their parents not to worry about coming. My mom’s parents shrugged. My dad’s parents said something like, “ARE YOU OUT OF YOUR MIND OF COURSE WE’RE COMING TO YOUR WEDDING.” This by the way perfectly encapsulates my two sets of grandparents’ approaches to family.

      My dad’s parents flew from Chicago to Boise with dinner (lobster bisque and sachertorte, probably both made by my grandmother) and silver flatware in a suitcase; my dad picked them up and drove them 3.5 hours to the teeny little Idaho town where he and my mother lived. He remembered to get my grandmother flowers. My mother’s currently trying to convince me not to make dessert for our wedding, and says that the last time she had a party and didn’t cook anything for it was her own wedding, which is entirely because my grandmother brought dinner from Chicago.

  • Spicy MacHaggis

    This post hit me right between the eyes. I’ve been wondering about this a lot for the past few months. The truth of the matter is that, given the exact same rights as our hetero counterparts, we wouldn’t be having the wedding we’re having. (We’d elope in a heartbeat!) That having been said, we feel a sort of pressure to “make it real”. It’s as if a marriage license has a weight and gravity all its own and without it, we feel a need to add stuff to the event to weigh it down and hold that moment in place.

    • I know just how you feel. I think I’d still want to have a wedding (any excuse for a party, seriously) but I’m betting the ceremony will end up at least a tad more serious because we want to make sure it feels real.

  • Class of 1980

    This is why I believe in Marriage, but not marriage licenses. We should not need a license to get married if we really believe in the right to live our lives in freedom. Without the stupid invention of marriage licenses, no one would even need to fight for equal rights to marry because no one could deny their rights in the first place. Besides, there are already laws in place to prevent people from marrying minors or anyone who can’t give consent. The only purpose of a license is to control people.

    WIKIPEDIA: “But marriage licenses were not required until after the civil war. Marriage licenses from their inception have sought to establish certain prohibitions on the institution of marriage. These prohibitions have changed throughout history. In the 1920s, they were used by 38 states to prohibit whites from marrying blacks, mulattos, Japanese, Chinese, Indians, Mongolians, Malays or Filipinos without a state approved license. At least 32 nations have established significant prohibitions on same-sex marriage.”

  • Jennie

    I didn’t read all the comments, so apologies if this has been said, but: I didn’t realize it, but you CAN set your medical power of attorney so that they WILL be able to be in the hospital room with you. I was like, “Oh, yeah.” when I heard that. I am definitely NOT saying a wedding isn’t important – I think it really is, but that is something to think about while we wait for everyone to sway the vote in favor of decency toward all people.

    • Jennie, the OP discusses this, but you’re right, your medical POA *should* allow whomever you want to be in the room during emergencies. BUT (and this is what terrifies me) this doesn’t always happen. The most obvious (and horrendously sad) case that comes to mind is this couple in Florida. Had they been federally married, there is no way a social worker could have disregarded valid, active medical paperwork they way they did.

  • I started this reply with “My …” and realized I’d spent long minutes trying to figure out what to call her. “My wife-and-wife-to-be…?

    I’m finding myself tripping over a problem few het couples would find themselves in: We’ve been Domestic Partners for nearly five years, but initially it was a simple health-insurance arrangement. We’ve called each other “wife” tongue-in-cheek since 2007 (and that’s still all it was during the 6 month window of CA marriage legality in 2008, dammit!), and with increasing seriousness over the past year. Now my (no, for realz now!) “wife” and I are planning to get married–even though the law hasn’t caught up to us yet.

    It makes for weird terminology because we’ve never been “girlfriends” or “fiancees”, and it seems weird to start that at this point, but I don’t want to dismiss the importance this wedding will have for us and our families in terms of recognition of our relatively recent decision that we’re in love and planning to spend the rest of our lives together.

    Hmm, let’s try “intended”?

    O.K., so my intended and I are planning a wedding for this fall. Recent happy progress in killing Prop 8 aside, it’s unlikely to be a legal ceremony. But we’ve decided that we’re not waiting (much less trying to schedule around the whims of the legal system!).

    So we’ll be having the wedding this fall. And I’m planning to do my best to make it clear to everyone that this *is* our “real” wedding–even though neither our legal status nor our living arrangements are changing.

    We already have the legal protection of the RDP (which in California is literally equivalent to marriage in all but name). Once the law catches up to us, we’ll take a quick trip down to the courthouse and sign the paperwork.

    But essentially, we’ve decided that we’re not going to let the slow grind of the legal system dictate when we can and can’t get married, any more than a straight couple would have to.

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