My partner John and I tied the knot on June 30th last year. John had wanted to get married for some time, and we could have done so in Massachusetts, but gay marriage has no federal recognition there, and thus offers none of the myriad legal protections that heterosexual marriage entails, so I felt that it would be something of a sham. Then Great Britain passed a law giving civil partnership legally identical status to marriage.
Because I am a dual national, it made sense for us to get hitched over there: if we ever decided to give up our US citizenship, we would be treated as each other’s next of kin, and would not be taxed on each other’s estates. The name may be less than in Massachusetts, but the rights are more.
Even after our well-attended celebration of union, I was shy of calling our relationship a marriage, and social reserve made me leery of using the word husband in referring to John; it seemed unmasculine and almost kitsch. Over time, though, I found myself increasingly incensed by the opposition to gay marriage and I recognized the use of that term as a tool in the battle for civil rights. My hesitancy owed to a society that had always made me feel that I could assume my real identity only at a cost.
Gradually, however, I’ve become convinced that words and rights are ultimately inseparable, and that it is pusillanimous for me to call John anything other than my husband. Linguistic apartheid gives license to those who would treat us as lesser citizens, and our love as an inferior love. It exacts a price, compromising our feeling of participation in the great history of love that our parents’ marriages reflected. Philip Larkin’s poem about a tomb in which the remains of a husband and wife were placed together, ends, “What will remain of us is love.” Marriage is the institution by which that love is sanctified, for better or worse—the mechanism of that remaining.
Since our wedding, I’ve gone from mild advocate to passionate supporter of gay marriage, of unions but especially of marriage itself. In the grand scheme of things, I’d rather have an election that brought in Obama and failed on marriage than the other way around, and I am almost embarrassingly excited about our new president. But it has been a bitter pill to hear the throngs shouting for joy about this election, while so many gay men and lesbians are being hit with a sense of how regressive society is about our rights and priorities.
Activists have consoled us that gay marriage will end up winning, but I don’t want to be the equivalent of the 106-year-old woman Obama lionized in his victory speech, winding down old age with the satisfying experience of seeing prejudice finally fall. I may have to wait that long to vote for a gay candidate for the presidency, but I will not wait so long for permission to refer to John as my husband not as an affectation but as a matter of national legal record, affirming the same rights and the same status between us that our heterosexual married friends and family enjoy.
I have become involved in the Gay and Lesbian Studies program at Yale University, where I studied as an undergraduate. In that capacity, I have spent time with Larry Kramer, the well-known playwright and activist who started the program. I hear his stories about being gay at Yale in the 1950s, when every effort was made to “cure” him, and I wonder how he ever managed to stay alive and intact in the face of that era’s view of gay people. I am not sure I could have survived it. I also spend time with the current undergraduates, and looking at them I feel a great envy for the life they have, and think how, if I had been of college age now instead of in the 1980s, I might have avoided years of self-hatred and confusion and self-flagellation, and perhaps had the early, open, happy romantic life that seems now to be available to so many students. I could have imagined for myself the future I am having now, one of marriage and family and relative social sanction—a future that hardly occurred to me at the time. Describing the gap between the Kramer-Solomon-Today generations to some of the undergraduates, I concluded by saying to them that I hoped that when they revisit the campus in twenty years, they will feel a similar sad longing for the lives of a new generation, so much more free and so much more full of hope than anything they can now imagine. Perhaps they will live in a time when gay lives are neither easier nor more difficult than straight ones, when gay hopes need not be different from straight ones, when the language of the gay and straight worlds do not differ.
I have a one-year-old daughter, and John and I are expecting another child in spring. I would like them to grow up with the social affirmation that their gay parents’ relationship was as valid as anyone else’s. The success of Proposition 8 hurts not just me and my husband, but also those children, and all the people who don’t have the right to emigrate to England in case society persistently denies us our due. Progress in gay rights over the past twenty years has been astonishing, but those advances have whipped up latent hatreds among the opposition and blunted the sense of urgency among people who consider themselves on our side. Too many people see language as a minor reflection of the reality we aspire to, but language is that reality.
Our fight for equality, at this otherwise euphoric moment, and our belief that separate but equal is not equal, are perceived by even our supporters as being somehow shrill. Gay marriage is not merely a matter of self-interest for gay people in relationships who want to use a fancy word to refer to their intimacies; it is an issue of human justice, of affording affirmation in a world that suffers a severe shortage of love and of joy.