When a friend first presented to me the arguments for gay marriage, in 1994, I thought the whole idea was ridiculous. In the face of staggering prejudice against us, marriage felt so remote as to be irrelevant. In most states, our way of love was still a criminal act. We needed to vanquish stigma and exclusion and workplace prejudice; we needed to be able to say whom we loved, without shame. Those seemed impossibly high goals. Who needed marriage? The institution was in disarray, and what there was of it seemed like a charming heterosexual contrivance that involved bridesmaids, fathers walking down the aisle, rehearsal dinners. I didn’t think marriage would be amenable to the guys I was dating or to me. I could imagine improvements on the margins where we resided, but I couldn’t imagine that those margins would ever be subsumed by the urban sprawl of civil liberties. We lived beyond the pale, and the best we could do there was some landscaping.
When John proposed to me, in 2005, I responded without much enthusiasm. It felt hollow to invest in a ceremony without legal meaning; to do so would be aping a process that had specifically excluded us. I loved John and hoped to spend my life with him, but I saw no occasion for staging a party and pretending it was anything more than that.
But the United Kingdom, where I have nationality, had instituted civil partnerships, which were legally identical to marriage; they just went by a different name. That legislation gave tying the knot substantive ramifications. If I moved to England, I could live with John there once we were civil partners. I didn’t actually want to move to England, but I’ve always liked having options. This time I proposed to John, and he accepted, and we had a blast of a wedding, in 2007. Having our friends gathered to acknowledge the relationship was gloriously affirming. We used the same wedding march, from “The Marriage of Figaro,” that my parents had used at their wedding; a friend read aloud the Yeats poem that my mother had recited to my father on their first date. John wrote a prayer for families. We were inscribing ourselves in a history to which we had not previously had access. We got married in Connecticut a couple of years later so that we could use the word “marriage.” The sanctification of our intimacy was achieved step by step.
In many ways, I have had little to complain of in the grand sweepstakes of inequality. I’ve grown up in comparative comfort; I’m white and male; I’m an American citizen; I’ve had an excellent education; my family accepted me, after a few bumps, for who I am. Yet practical advantages accrue to me now. I wrote my will in doubletalk: if our marriage has federal recognition, this is the path; if our marriage does not have federal recognition, that is the path. It took a lot of work to make up such an eventuality-burdened document, and the idea that half of it became irrelevant on Wednesday, with the Supreme Court’s decision in United States v. Windsor, makes a concrete difference in my life and even in my death. There are more than eleven hundred protections or responsibilities contingent on marriage in federal law and policy, all of which the Defense of Marriage Act denied to same-sex marriages until Windsor. I’m revved up to learn about all of them.
I hail the progress that the Supreme Court’s decision affords not only because I am its beneficiary but because I have walked this trail myself. We respond to and embody the prejudice around us, and we respond to and embody justice. Equality is not some kind of ice-cream topping, a cheerful cherry atop an already rich sundae; it is elementary. When I couldn’t conceptualize gay marriage, I was in a prison partly of my own devising, and the friend who argued in favor of it was freer than I. When John and I wed, we were declaring that our love was as noble as any other. But, without full recognition from the U.S. government, our marriage, to borrow a phrase that Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg used in the oral arguments in the case, retained elements of a skim-milk charade, both externally and internally.
In my lectures about my recent book on identity, I often quote this passage from Time, which ran in 1966, when I was two: “Even in purely nonreligious terms, homosexuality represents a misuse of the sexual faculty. It is a pathetic little second-rate substitute for reality, a pitiable flight from life. As such it deserves fairness, compassion, understanding and, when possible, treatment. But it deserves no encouragement, no glamorization, no rationalization, no fake status as minority martyrdom, no sophistry about simple differences in taste—and, above all, no pretense that it is anything but a pernicious sickness.” When I read about Americans who were prosecuted for their homosexuality in the mid-twentieth century, or of people even today being tortured and murdered for their homosexuality all around the world, I feel fortunate to reside now, here. How did we get to Windsor? How did an illness become an identity?
The legal battle over gay marriage has not been more than half to do with changing the law. It has dwelt more meaningfully on validation, insuring that to play my parents’ wedding march was not to lampoon what they did when they married, in 1961, but to extend it. If I had thought all along that gay marriage made sense, then I might have avoided the decade of arrested development that resulted from my erstwhile effort to live in the closet. In her press conference, Edie Windsor said, “Internalized homophobia is a bitch. I lied all the time.” In other words, Wednesday’s decision not only represents the end of external homophobia; it will also will make it easier for many to resist the self-loathing of internalized homophobia. There are few gay people who don’t know from personal experience what she was talking about. The respect we get from the law strengthens our respect for ourselves.
I serve on the board of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. Our executive director, Rea Carey, long ago talked about what gay people would face “the day after marriage,” when people would assume that the fight had been won. In states where marriage equality has been established, donations to local gay-activism organizations have dropped precipitously. It’s important to remember that there is no same-sex marriage in thirty-seven states. In most of the country, you can still be fired for being gay or lesbian; there is no federal job protection. Housing discrimination is still legal. Gay and lesbian kids get bullied relentlessly; their rate of suicide is still appallingly high. There are even slimmer protections for transgender Americans.
The Supreme Court decisions constitute a real milestone, but ultimate victory remains far away. Yet where we are seemed impossible so recently. The fact that we got here is already transformational. This fresh social justice is infusing the very air, and I am breathing it as though it were a new oxygen.