The Bride (One of Them, Anyway) Wore Lime Green
by Simone Eastman
Guys, can we talk about the marriage equality party bus that we’re all on? Have you ever thought about what happens once we knock back the celebratory “YEAH IT’S LEGAL!” shot and head over to the next state battleground? Yeah, so it turns out that marriage equality doesn’t begin and end with weddings. We’re nowhere near a place where those queer partnerships recognized by the state as marriages are actually culturally, socially, or legally equivalent to heterosexual marriages. You know how I know? I’m married, my income taxes are a mess, the pressure of being everyone’s cause célèbre has strained my marriage, and the party bus is nowhere in sight.
(I am just going to take a parenthetical moment here to give a shoutout to the Alternatives to Marriage Project and say that I also think it’s worth considering what the social value of marriage is all about in the first place and why we look to this particular state authority to legitimate love and companionship of any kind. I have a lot of friends who are deeply engaged with radical and queer critiques of marriage, and learning to hear them and take them seriously and to think about my choice to get married as a capital-P privilege without feeling threatened has been really important for me. If you want to dish about this, you should email me.)
Yes, I’m a bona fide California Married Gay, one half of one of that bandied-about statistic of 18,000 couples married in the state between May and November 2008. And from the beginning, our marriage was not like straight marriages. I’m not sure it ever will be or that it should be. But I am sure that when my straight friends announce they’re getting married, people don’t fall all over themselves to point out to them how difficult it is to get divorced. Yes, that happened. Repeatedly. That’s how my marriage started, not with well-wishes, but with forecasts of trouble that had nothing to do with the reality of my relationship.
The crash course in etiquette only continued. It turns out a lot of people don’t really know how to think — or what to think — about marriage when it happens outside of its cultural (and financial) norms. Some of my friends were offended by my e-mailed announcement that I was getting married in four weeks — that they didn’t get a notice or a squealing phone call or a chance to somehow involve themselves — because it didn’t occur to them that with Proposition 8 on the ballot in California, we had to decide immediately and act really quickly. We didn’t want to do it that way, but we just didn’t have the luxury of waiting for a better time, and people couldn’t really understand that. What’s a wedding without any of the things that we think make it one — a registry, an invitation, a white dress, a party, a diamond? My wife bought a diamond ring with credit card points so she would look more like the other ladies at work, or so her hands would, anyway.
Our actual wedding, which took place at San Francisco City Hall during the first week of same-sex marriages, was pretty great, but we were also part of a very obvious media sideshow. While we were taking pictures, a very small woman, a tourist who spoke no English, gestured to herself and her camera and us and then handed the camera to my father-in-law and squeezed between us for a photo. She was pretty clearly there to take photos of the Married Gays. Nonetheless, the ceremony up in the building’s rotunda was strangely beautiful and very intimate. When we walked into the afternoon sun in our off-the-rack dresses (a lime green J. Crew dress for me), we were married. But in a bunch of ways that I couldn’t anticipate, we weren’t actually equal.
Most obvious is the stuff like income taxes (we have to file jointly in California but can’t file jointly federally) and various administrative headaches. But after two and a half years, more important to me is the way that we act out equality every day — how people signal to us that our marriage isn’t like theirs in what they say and do.
FOR EXAMPLE. Do you know how weird and unsettling it is that people automatically assume that two adult women with the same last name and who look vaguely alike (we’re both quite tall and wear glasses) must be sisters, rather than romantic and sexual partners? I mean, I get the law of averages and all that, but it adds a creepy incest overtone to whatever conversation follows once we explain that no, we’re married. I grew my hair out and started wearing contact lenses partly so that this might happen less. (And also so I could wear big-ass sunglasses from the drugstore and rock a high ponytail, but that’s neither here nor there.) I don’t know a lot of people in straight relationships who feel like they have to change their gender presentation in order to look more married to each other. Do you?
Even more unsettling and depressing is that sometimes it is safer for us not to correct people, to pretend that we actually are sisters — like in a family health care crisis, because I know that it’ll be easier for my wife to gain access to hospital rooms and doctor’s visits when we are visiting “our brother.” And when we travel together and are either visiting a new place or a very conservative one (like my Midwestern hometown) this is our default mode. You never know how someone will react to your coming out or to your marriage and, however much I believe in what Harvey Milk has to say about the power of doing it, sometimes I just don’t have the energy to be a game-changer when I’m at a car rental counter after a red-eye flight.
We are also treated as though one of us “must be the husband” when we hang out with straight couples, or even just hang out with straight folks AS a couple. What tends to happen is that one of us ends up being required to bro down with the dudes in the room — husbros, boyfriends, unattached dudes. The other one ends up talking to the ladies and sometimes literally hanging out in the kitchen. Which one of us is called to be Mr. Mrs. at any given party varies, but the fact that the roles are cast in this way never does. People can’t understand us as a couple, it seems, unless they find a way, however subtly, to make our relationship look like theirs.
It’s not all about risk situations or overtly offensive behavior, either. Sometimes people who are genuinely loving and genuinely mean well — the straight folks on the party bus — put huge pressure on our relationship and our marriage. We are one of the only married queer couples most of our friends know, and they’ve unwittingly turned us into their Poster Couple. This one’s really hard for me, because I don’t want to be rude or unkind or ungrateful for their love and support. But JESUS it is a DOWNER when you’re out somewhere and you have to start talking about whether or not your marriage is in legal jeopardy because your friend is SUUUUUUUUPER interested in this but hasn’t bothered to follow it in the news at all.
Getting married has created a huge amount of pressure for us to be a SUCCESSFUL HAPPY LOVING LESBIAN COUPLE who you can point to as a great reason to support gay marriage. Sometimes we aren’t happy or loving. Sometimes, like almost all couples, we annoy the fucking shit out of each other. And sometimes we have serious disagreements or conflicts in our relationship. But it becomes impossible to talk about them or admit that my genetic inability to hang up my towel after a shower makes my wife want to strangle me. How could we? We know that people think we’re “perfect together,” which is its own kind of pressure, but even more than that, our relationship has all these other meanings for other people. We’re your friends who Got Married In California, Isn’t That Great? What would it mean if we were your friends who got divorced in California, too? What would happen then?
I guess what I’ve learned from the marriage misadventure is something I probably should already have known: that equality doesn’t automatically come with changes in the law. The work really begins once laws are changed, and “equality,” however we think about it, is something very personal that we all have a responsibility to and for. It’s something that we act out every single day. It comes in whether or not we accept what people tell us about themselves and about their lives. You, maybe even more than our marriage certificate on our bathroom wall (haha, true story) — you’re the one who makes our marriage equal.
Simone Eastman is a cat lady.
Photo via Flickr