My deepest thanks to writer and editor Mark McNease, for sharing my essay Bridges on the trials and rewards of being different.
My partner and I have been together for three and a half decades. There were no cell phones in the early years of our relationship, and home computers were not yet commonplace. Imagine. No email, no Facebook, no text messages. We kept our eyes on each other.
We were living in Berkeley then, holding part-time jobs, because being separated for eight hours a day was inconceivable. I remember how we used to gaze at each other, in and out of bed, delighting in every gesture and freckle. Time went away, slid out the back door and left us in peace. While the rest of humanity continued somewhere else, we were locked away, immersed in a slow tease of mutual discovery. For approximately three years, until the trifling annoyances of modern living inevitably elbowed in, we were on our honeymoon.
Not an actual honeymoon. Marriage, honeymoons, wedding anniversaries—we were not allowed these celebrations, and, to be fair, we scarcely considered them. You don’t order what’s not on the menu, and we were too busy adoring each other anyway. Some of our friends were having “commitment ceremonies,” but these did not interest us either. We knew we loved each other—what was achieved by announcing it? There was something a little sad, we thought, about gathering in this way, exchanging rings and vows that meant nothing in the real world.
It was only later, when we began paying health insurance premiums and property taxes and school bonds, that we began to understand what we were missing. At the federal level, marriage confers at least 1,138 rights and protections; excluded from marriage we were disallowed these privileges. We could not adopt a child, could not file a joint federal tax return, could not draw one another’s Social Security or pension, could not get legal protection for inheritance rights, could not take dual advantage of a group health plan, could not make emergency medical decisions for each other, could not even be at one another’s bedside should a critical illness arise (same sex partners are not considered “next of kin”). We were registered as domestic partners, but that status was useless when it came to tangible benefits, and in fact only hindered the situation, making our tax preparation (one for the state, one for the federal government) more complicated and expensive. The only thing that domestic partnership actually did was illuminate its own inadequacy.
So there we were, multitudes of same sex couples, paying into a system that barred us from its benefits. Marriage, it was argued, did not belong to same sex couples. It was biblical. It was sacred.
I have always been astonished by the number of people who consider the bible a divine guidebook, who will not accept the fact it was written over a period of many years, by a dubious collection of authors. There is wisdom in its pages, and there is also stunning foolishness and spite. Trolling through this tome, one can probably find passages to justify any sort of bias. To leverage the law on this book, to define marriage in accordance with the bible’s arbitrary edicts, is impolitic and dangerous, a reckless mix of church and state.
The real history of marriage is far from sacred. Marriage was created, about four thousand years ago, as a means of guaranteeing that a man’s children were his biological heirs. In ancient Greece a father handed over his daughter for the purpose of producing legitimate offspring. Hebrew men could take several wives, while married Greek and Roman males were free to satisfy their urges with anyone of either gender. Wives were required to stay home and tend the house; if they failed to produce children their husbands could give them back and marry someone else.
By the eighth century the Catholic church stepped in and the blessings of a priest became a necessary part of the marriage ceremony. The church’s involvement did improve the situation for wives, forbidding divorce as well as infidelity, though wives were still expected to defer to their husbands in all matters.
Not until the Middle Ages did the concept of romantic love begin to alter the arrangement of marriage. Wives won some respect in this evolution, but the idea that a husband owned his wife persisted for centuries. When America was colonized by the Europeans, a husband’s dominance was recognized by a legal doctrine called “coverture,” whereby the bride relinquished her identity and surrendered her name.
The most dramatic change came in 1920 when women won the right to vote and were finally considered full and equal citizens. Women were the first victors in the battle for marriage equality. By the late 1960s, state laws forbidding interracial marriage were at last overturned. Now, five decades later, same sex marriage has received the same treatment. Fifty years. That’s a lot of opposition.
I came forward as a lesbian when I was twenty-two years old. The challenges involved, the ridicule I was headed for, did not deter me. This was what I wanted, who I was. My passage had been made a little easier by the gays and lesbians who preceded me, and now it was my turn to help. If we do not live our truths, how can we evolve? Living openly as a lesbian has made me tougher; it has also, conversely, made me softer, more achingly aware of the struggle faced by everyone who lives in an atmosphere of censure.
What surprises me still is the smoldering malice, the amount of time and money people have spent, are still spending, on stopping same sex marriage, as if their own lives are in some way threatened or diminished by it.
In 2004, when Gavin Newsome began allowing same sex marriages to take place in the city and county of San Francisco, my partner and I, anticipating legal backlash, waited. Sure enough, the Supreme Court of CA swiftly halted these marriages and voided the marriage licenses of four thousand same sex couples. In July 2008, a month after the court finally legalized same sex marriage in CA, my partner and I were wed, tearfully, surrounded by close friends and family. At that point we had been together twenty-eight years. It was our sweetest day, our greatest triumph. Our union was not recognized at the federal level, but this was a solid start.
I’ll never forget the night of the 2008 presidential election. We were jubilant, celebrating our first black president—how far we had come!—when someone said, “Prop 8 passed.” We stared at each other. What? It was true. Our rights had been put to a popular vote, and suddenly we were living in a state that left me and my partner, and thousands of other newlyweds, stranded. We still had our marriage licenses, they just didn’t mean anything. Not until Prop Hate, as we called it, was overturned five years later did we regain our legal married status.
We took Prop 8 personally because it was personal, as are all attacks against equality. To see the lengths that people will go to in an effort to deny others their rights, especially rights attached to an institution as benign as marriage, is to encounter hate, at a frightening bedrock level.
Laws of course do not change public opinion, at least not right away, but we’ll never get anywhere without a level playing field. This is where opposites attract, where “them” becomes “us” and “different” becomes “normal.” The biggest benefactors of the nationwide legalization of same sex marriage will be children. In making every household matter equally, in giving all parents the same opportunities, we have bequeathed our children an inestimable gift: the space to come together, the chance to be kind.