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Gay Marriage Has Changed How Others Treat Us

On 29 March 2014, gay couples will be able to marry in the U.K. A married gay man explains how his life has benefited.

The launch of gay marriage in England and Wales this Saturday has particular resonance for my husband and me, though we are long established as civil partners under British law. The shift may sound incidental to those who felt that civil unions were already an adequate response to gay couples’ wish to be recognised, but it has not felt incidental to us.

Andrew Solomon and John Habich

Andrew Solomon and John Habich

In 2006, when John and I decided to solemnise our relationship, we weren’t entirely sure where to do it. I’m a dual national, US /UK; he’s American. Gay marriage had been introduced in one American state, but it had no federal recognition and no recognition in New York where we lived; it therefore felt like a hollow exercise. Civil unions had been established in the UK and I liked the idea that we could have a ceremony with meaning under the law. So we settled on tying the knot in England, taking officialdom over the word marriage.

We didn’t particularly need the protection of the law at that point, but a British civil union would give John the right to move to the UK with me if we ever wanted to resettle and living in George W. Bush’s America we saw the chance that we’d someday want to flee our homeland. That remained an abstract idea, however; we mostly saw the imprimatur of government as a technicality we could exploit to stage a spectacular celebration of our romance.

As the process unfurled our understanding changed. The gravity of a legal union began to invade our catering plans and conversations with florists. We discovered that declaring our love as permanent in front of a large body of people and in the eyes of the law was a commitment, one into which we might enter headlong, but necessarily with reverence too. It counted for us, and it counted for those who were going to be with us as well.

Immigration systems are highly sensitive to deceit. We had to be interviewed separately by a registrar, a technique intended to uncover the possibility that we were pretending to be a couple in order to secure John residency or a work permit. There was a comical element to this: it was hard to believe that the authenticity of our relationship could be measured by whether I knew his mother’s maiden name (Schanen) or his preferred brand of aftershave (Givenchy).

The evidence of our love was in how John had given me a feeling of safety in the world, in how much more I had laughed since his trademark humour had set up shop in my life. It was in our affection for most of each other’s friends and our willingness to find a way with those friends we weren’t keen about. It lay in our hopes of having a family together. It lay in a joint commitment to permanence itself. So to be asked about John’s handedness (left) or his place of birth (Wisconsin) seemed to trivialise what our great love actually looked like.

However there was also something shockingly thrilling about being asked to prove the authenticity of our relationship in the eyes of the law. When we were growing up, homosexual acts were illegal in the US and the UK and the idea that a relationship such as ours could have any official status was laughable. By the time we met the Northampton registrar we were in a changed world, one we’d not dared to imagine in our childhoods. In that context even the most annoying questions she asked us seemed to reflect the grandeur of our commitment to each other.

The registrar, a severe woman in late middle age, was dour through the process with each of us and I wondered whether what she was doing made her uncomfortable. After she’d done with the cross-examining she called us both into her office and told us we’d passed. Then she said, quite surprisingly and with evident sincerity, “I’ve met more interesting people more committed to each other since civil unions went through than in the rest of my working life. Congratulations to you both.” She had not merely acknowledged that we could love each other, but had acknowledged the particular richness in our kind of relationship. That may not sound radical to the heterosexuals, but for us it was nearly revelatory.

We chose to have a very old-fashioned ceremony, taken with the curious fact that the more traditional it was the more radical it was. We did ourselves proud with the ceremony, but there were still aspects of it that were saddening. The registrar pronounced us civil partners and we then had to have a musical interlude while she left the building before we could be blessed by a minister and have a ceremony that transcended legalities. That imposed pause reminded us that our love was real in the eyes of the law, but not equal in the eyes of the law.

Marriage is an embracing word for a varied experience. Marriages of the 19th century differ from marriages of the 21st century. Those of wealthy people differ from those of the indigent. Those of Americans differ from those of the British. Gay marriages are different from straight ones. Marriage is an adaptable state, but all marriages have enough similarity to earn a common parlance. They hinge on the conscious decision that two people make to spend the rest of their lives together, to love and to honour each other and to make life’s great decisions as a unit. And that has nothing to do with the gender of the participants. Our home sometimes wants a woman’s touch, perhaps, but other households sometimes want a queer eye. It’s all marriage.

Gay marriages are not identical to straight ones, but I believe they are equal. And equality cannot be acknowledged as long as what is done for gay couples is named differently from what is done for straight ones.

Which is why we got married – with the word “marriage” – two years later, when New York decided to recognise out-of-state American gay marriages. This second ceremony, much less elaborate than the first, gave us tremendous joy. When the clerk pronounced us married I felt that our love finally participated fully in the tradition that had sanctified my parents’ union and the intimacy of our friends. That word seemed to crown our happiness together.

John is the biological father of two children, Oliver and Lucy, with some lesbian friends in Minnesota, Tammy and Laura. Oliver served as John’s ring-bearer at our civil partnership; Lucy was a flower girl. Among the guests that day was my closest friend from university, Blaine, who had divorced years earlier but wanted to have a child; she was pregnant with our daughter, little Blaine, who lives with her mother in Texas.

John and I had already discussed our hope to have a child who would live with us full-time and were already in the process of interviewing egg donors. I was to be the biological father of our next child and Laura offered to be our surrogate. We had one unsuccessful embryo transfer and then a pause; the second time, it worked and our son George was born about 21 months after the wedding. Our second wedding included a naming ceremony for George.

Legally, Tammy and Laura are the parents of Oliver and Lucy; Blaine and I are the parents of Blaine; and John and I are the parents of George, but all four children call us Daddy (me) and Papa (John). And we spend a great deal of time together; in fact, as I write this George is staying for two nights with Oliver and Lucy and their moms, his first time away from his parents.

When I applied for British passports for my children, the consular officer was rather shirty. He maintained that he “didn’t understand” how I could parent two children in different households who were close in age and yet had different coparents. In fact he didn’t even understand how John and I could be the two parents to our child.

I replied rather icily, “My purpose in coming here was not to solicit your opinion of my domestic arrangements. The birth certificates you have clearly indicate that I am a father of each child and those children therefore qualify for British passports.” When I later met the British Consul at dinner and recounted this, he apologised profusely, but no ceremony or word will strip the world of prejudice and it’s a good thing to remember that. I encounter it every day.

Arriving in the UK on a flight recently, I went through the quick line for UK passport holders so I could find a luggage trolley. John went through the line for foreign nationals. Our son could have come with either of us, but he went with John, who was grilled on how he could be the second parent to a child whose British nationality descended from his father. These little encounters – and there have been plenty on the American side too – seem to call into question whether we are really a couple, whether we are really a family. I have never minded so much for myself, but I have been distressed for my children. I have hated for them to be exposed to the view that we are a lesser arrangement.

Last year the American federal government recognised our union for legal purposes, as the British government has long done. And this week the British Government recognises the word we aspired to, as our home state has long done. Which matters more? The legal recognition would seem to trump for its practical implications, but more subtly, the word counts for just as much. It will presumably close down the obnoxious questions posed by border officials and consular officers, but more even than that, it places our family on a pedestal equal to those of other families.

I cannot pretend that our life is the same and I cannot pretend that my children will never face prejudice, but I do feel, in both countries now, that we are being given a fair chance. When I was younger I bought into the idea that it would be wrong to bring children into a gay relationship because they would be exposed to so much harassment. Terminology and laws have helped make that untrue; so have shifting social norms. Now, on the secure far side of such laws, I can appreciate how much I had internalised prejudice, how much my onetime ambivalence about being in a gay couple and having children was a reflection of an unequal society.

So I’m glad of gay marriage because it changes how others treat us, but also because it changes how I understand myself. That altered understanding makes me a more loyal husband, a better father, and a happier person.