Thursday, May 15, 2008

Love was made for me and you

The California Supreme Court will decide any minute now on whether or not our state consitution allows for same-sex marriage. I'll update this as soon as I hear.

In the meantime, here's a piece I wrote about Annie and me getting married in the city when the mayor decided to allow for some civil disobedience. It was an amazing day.


(This piece first appeared in Divide 4 years ago)

Spouses for Life

It’s Valentine’s Day, and we’re getting married. It’s still dark outside when we wake and dress. We keep looking at other. We can’t believe we’re actually doing this. The sun is just starting to streak the indigo sky as we drive to our friends’ house to pick them up for the trip to San Francisco. It’s a Saturday morning, so there’s not much traffic. From the back seat, Carolyn hands us a gift, a CD she burned last night. We put it in the player and the first song rings out: Going to the chapel and we’re gonna get mare-air-air-eed . . . We all join in on the song, the morning sun freshly illuminating the now pale blue sky, the promise of one of those jewels of a California winter day. We’re not actually going to a chapel, though. We’re going to San Francisco City Hall where we’re not only getting married but performing an act of civil disobedience. Carolyn will marry Mary Beth. And I will marry Annie.

We arrive two hours before the City Hall doors are to be opened. Already a line stretches from the steps down to the sidewalk, halfway along the building that runs a few city blocks. Joining the line, we play Carolyn’s CD mix in our boom box. The Dixie Chicks sing I believe in love . . . Honking cars drive by and the drivers wave. The crowd cheers. This line holds it all: white people, people of color, old, young, people with children—even what appear to be heterosexual allies. Or maybe they’re just straight people who didn’t hear the news, who came to get married on Valentine’s Day.

The news is this: San Francisco’s mayor Gavin Newsom believes that the ban on same-sex marriages is counter to the state constitution’s equal protection clause. Because he believes his job is to uphold the state constitution, he has decided to allow the city to marry same-sex couples. In spite of the fact that Californians voted in a proposition to define marriage as between a man and a woman. In spite of the fact that then-President Clinton signed DOMA, the Defense of Marriage Act, which defined marriage the same way at the federal level. Heterosexual and married to a woman, Newsom has said that same-sex marriage is an issue of fairness and compassion. Valentine’s Day is two days into his proclamation.

By the looks of the growing line, the news has spread.

A tall woman with glasses walks the line, asking each couple, “How long have you been together?” The two men behind us have been together for eighteen years. Two women toward the front have been together for thirty-five years. Two women with a baby: twelve. Carolyn and Mary Beth: eight. Annie and me: ten. We add up the numbers as though to fortify ourselves. We are in the midst of celebration, in awe of what’s happening, but we also know that there will be a backlash. We keep expecting the picketers to arrive, the ones who always manifest at the pride parades, the queer youth proms, even at Matthew Shepard’s funeral: Save the Family. God Will Forgive You, Repent Now. God Hates Fags.

Oddly, though, they’re not here. I briefly wonder why, then file that thought away, not wanting to expend energy on hate on this historic day, my wedding day. Funny to call it that, since it’s so spontaneous. This was the day we were planning to drive to my parents’ house for the weekend—to play cards, go out to dinner, and change the hard-to-reach florescent lightbulbs in their kitchen. But after hearing the news yesterday, we’ve taken a detour, stopping off to get married. We’re even wearing our casual, comfortable car-travel clothes. Mary Beth and Carolyn, on the other hand, are all dolled up in silky fabrics, curled hair, and makeup. We represent two ends of the broad spectrum around us: young men in tuxes with boutonnieres wrapped in rainbow ribbons; two septuagenarians dressed all in purple; couples in jeans and tee-shirts; others wearing red Valentine’s Day chiffon. Two women in white wedding dresses and carrying bouquets walk by, and the crowd cheers. A woman near us is on her cell phone, giving the play-by-play to whoever’s on the other end. And a few entrepreneurial people mingle around selling snacks, sodas, bags of rose petals. A blonde, large-breasted woman exhibits a sample of her wares: a very tight tee-shirt that proclaims in colorful paint: “I Got Same-Sex Married at San Francisco City Hall.”

And now the boom box is playing Faith Hill a capella: Amazing grace how sweet the sound. Annie and I begin to slow dance. I breathe in her familiar scent, feel the velvet of her cheek against mine. I close my eyes, and when I open them, I see sitting on the curb a young woman with spiky hair and an eyebrow pierce singing along, was blind but now I see . . . Amazing grace . . . . Grace, one of my favorite words. I wish grace for us all, the big beautiful dark-skinned butch woman wearing red suspenders, the forty-ish woman with long red hair and a gap between her teeth, the curvaceous black woman in a long black dress, the two balding white men who keep kissing and staring into each other’s eyes. And for some reason, at this moment, an inauspicious thought blasts through my brain: What if this is all some sort of ruse, to get a bunch of queers in a vulnerable position, all gathered together in a building? A film clip flashes through my mind, men in black ski masks storming the building, blowing us away with machine guns. Knock it off, I reprimand myself. But then my mind imagines someone pumping the crowded city hall with a poison gas. Stop it. Stop it. I imagine someone breaking into City Hall, gathering all of the names and addresses of the newly married same-sex couples. Hunting us down in our homes.

A woman begins shouting through a bullhorn. My heart races—has something happened? Bullhorns, evacuation? But no, she’s giving some kind of directive, holding up a stack of papers. Officials begin walking the line, handing forms to couples, explaining in detail how to fill them out. The forms are applications for marriage licenses. Father’s full name here, mother’s maiden name here, place of birth here. Applicant One. Applicant Two. I take refuge in the systematized bureaucracy. The woman who patiently repeats the directions over and over to couple after couple is one of the numerous volunteers, some of whom married their partners the previous day. I think about these volunteers, their respectful, calm demeanors, the way they keep saying “congratulations” to all the couples. I’m trying to push myself further and further away from (historically precedented, albeit Hollywood-fueled) paranoia. Away from fear, closer and closer to gratitude. We are getting married. How can this be? Isn’t it amazing?

Gavin Newsom has made this happen, the man who was so alarmed after witnessing President Bush’s State of the Union address in Washington D.C. that he decided on the plane that he had to do this. That he had to take this stand. When he got home, he spoke to his wife, who fully supported his decision. Then he called his father, a retired California appeals court judge, William Newsom. The senior Newsom bemoaned that his brilliant son, the youthful mayor of San Francisco, was committing political suicide. “You’ll never be President,” he said.

So here we are, all of us in line, winding around the block, beneficiaries of the conscience of a man who, I have no doubt, will go down in history as a visionary. He will be condemned by the righteous—the very people whom history undoubtedly will view as morally wrong, akin to the segregationists of the South. I don’t have a doubt, but I worry. The backlash will come. Again I remind myself to move away from fear. I am here, with Annie, and we’re filling out this form. I have a vague recollection of another time I filled out such a form, almost twenty years ago.

At twenty-two, I married Robert. If marrying Annie is an act of civil disobedience, then marrying Robert was an act of civil obedience. Engagement party, white wedding dress, diamond ring, best man and maid-of-honor, champagne reception, Hawaiian honeymoon. A textbook case. It was an entree into a world that everyone else I knew inhabited or planned to inhabit. The world of marriage and the promise of children, the world of unquestioning social support for our relationship. And I never thought of the status of my heterosexual marriage as a privilege.

Until later, long after the divorce, when I fell in love with a woman.

Suddenly holding hands in public with the person I loved was a “statement” at best, unsafe at worst. Suddenly there were straight people everywhere—all over T.V., billboards, in books and movies. Where were the lesbians and gay men? No one asked me, “When are you two getting married?” Even after the oh-my-God-you’re-not-who-we-thought-you-were turmoil had subsided. Even after my family began to love Annie. Even after my mom said, “You seem happier with Annie than you ever did with Robert.”

But my friends and family are not to blame. When Annie and I fell in love ten years ago—pre-Ellen, pre-Will & Grace, pre-Queer Eye for the Straight Guy—fewer people were publicly out, and almost no one was talking about same-sex marriage. There were some rumblings, though. In 1989, Denmark became the first country to recognize same-sex unions. However, in a separate-but-equal mode, they were civil unions, not marriages. And besides, that was way over there, in an insanely liberal and very cold country. Two years after that, same-sex couples in Hawaii sued the state for the right to get married. This didn’t make the news until a few years into the litigation, when it looked like the same-sex marriage side might win. Hawaiian voters trumped the court before its final decision; in 1991, the voters amended the Hawaiian state constitution to define marriage as between a man and a woman. In the 1990’s, the issue of gay unions was being raised not only legally but socially: IKEA aired a T.V. commercial featuring two men, clearly a couple, shopping for furniture; and two men on Northern Exposure “married” as did two women on Friends.

This has led to some interesting confusion: over the years, when people have asked me if I’m married, my standard response has been, “I’m not legally allowed to marry my partner, Annie.” Once someone responded, “Really? But I’ve seen two women marry on Friends.” And others have said, “But can’t you go to Hawaii or Vermont?” And recently I’ve gotten, “Why don’t you go to Canada (The Netherlands, Belgium)?” I respond that Vermont offers civil unions, not marriages, meaning that federal recognition and benefits don’t apply; and that an Ontario or British Columbia or Netherlands or Belgium same-sex marriage doesn’t count here in the states. Many people are unaware that in 1996, the same year Ross’s ex-wife and her girlfriend got “married” by Newt Gingrich’s sister Candace on Friends, Clinton enacted DOMA. He signed it under cover of night, at midnight to be precise, perhaps hoping his gay constituency—the group many say helped get him elected—wouldn’t notice. Maybe others didn’t notice either. Given polls that claim the majority are opposed to same-sex marriage, I wonder about people’s confusion regarding this issue. Apparently many people think same-sex marriage has been legal in parts of the U.S. for some time. Indeed, commitment ceremonies look like weddings. In 2002, the New York Times began announcing same-sex civil unions in the wedding pages, and in 2003 Bride magazine ran a feature on lesbian weddings. In the wings, too, is the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court decision that has proclaimed Vermont-style civil unions discriminatory. This has set the stage for same-sex marriages to take place in Massachusetts.*

It’s likely—indeed, inevitable—that the Massachusetts ruling and Newsom’s courageous act will spark a fierce backlash. Indeed, almost two weeks into the San Francisco marriages, President Bush interrupted afternoon soap operas to televise an announcement. Not about war or a terrorist-related crisis. But about the “crisis” of same-sex marriages. He chose this dramatic venue to call for a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. Even Laura Bush—who in an amusing Freudian slip once said that she didn’t want to speak out about “controversial issues like gay marriage” because her husband “has enough opponents”—pronounced the San Francisco marriages as “very, very shocking.”

And so here are Annie and me, and Carolyn and Mary Beth, being shocking. Along with thousands of other lesbians and gays, we are adding fuel to the backlash fire. Because we love each other. Because we, along with Gavin Newsom, believe that we deserve the same social and economic benefits that straight married couples receive.

The city hall doors open, and the line inches forward. Nat King Cole is singing, Love was made for me and you. When we get to the steps, Mary Beth, who has become our official wedding photographer, takes a picture of us in front of the sun-illuminated City Hall sign. Cement statues of titans emerge from the pillars, shouldering the weight of the building, of tradition. I think about how the city of San Francisco has so often been in the forefront of shouldering the burden of social change. We’re almost to the top of the steps when two women emerge, beaming, holding a marriage license in their hands. The crowd roars.

We make our way slowly through the turnstile, through security, and into a line that winds its way into the official offices. More volunteers come by, checking and rechecking our forms, our IDs, handing us paper tags inscribed with wait-line numbers. They repeatedly smile at us and say, “Congratulations.” When we get to the office where we submit our form, it takes just a few minutes for an official behind the counter to input our information and print out an official marriage license.

“Raise your right hands,” says a woman with short salt-and-pepper hair. “Do you swear that everything on the form is true to the best of your knowledge?” she asks. We do.
Carolyn and Mary Beth do the same. We gaze at the papers: “License and Certificate of Marriage,” signed by Mabel S. Teng, San Francisco Assessor-Recorder. City seal in one corner, State of California seal in the other. And a bar code. We’re official.

Next we take the elevator to the rotunda, its arched windows flooding in sunlight, illuminating the impressive decorative wall reliefs and marble pillars. In various stations on the wrap-around balcony, officials preside over the union of couples. Two women with shiny black hair, two men in jeans and tuxedo jackets, two women in red dresses with flowers in their swept-up hair. Vows are murmured, friends and family clap, officials read from their scripts.

We are matched up with a woman whose name sounds like one dreamed up by Harriet Beecher Stowe or Charles Dickens: Vivian Gay. First she weds Carolyn and Mary Beth, and then Annie and me. Peering over the edges of her dark, thick glasses, her steady voice pours forth a stream of familiar words: wedlock, honor, respect, cherish, faithful, not to be taken lightly, true, for better or for worse, in sickness and in health. Holding hands, Annie and I look at each other, at our friends, at Vivian, back at each other. We hold each other’s gaze. As though we have the same thought at the same moment, tears fill our eyes. Someone is saying these words to us, for us.

This doesn’t feel like the beginning of something, as the rhetoric of marriage insists. It feels like the re-affirmation of something. Of our ten years together. Of the commitment we made long ago. Of the commitment we’ve been living in the light of those who love and support us—and in the face of those who don’t.

“I now pronounce you spouses for life,” says Vivian. Funny how it rhymes with “husband and wife.”

*As this essay was going to press, on May 17, 2004, Massachusetts became the first state to legalize gay marriage. In order to block out-of-state same-sex couples from coming to Massachusetts to marry, Governor Mitt Romney invoked a state law that forbids the state from marrying anyone who cannot be legally married in their home state—a law adopted in 1913 to block interracial marriages. Immediately, several Massachusetts communities announced they would defy Governor Romney by issuing out-of-state couples marriage licenses. Romney supports a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage that will come before Massachusetts voters in November 2006; if passed, the amendment will nullify the same-sex marriages that have taken place.

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