I never wanted to get married. Perhaps I had the bride fantasy when I was a child, but then came feminism and Marxism with the revelation that marriage was a patriarchal institution that served to make women and children the property of men. Then came getting involved with women instead of men. That was the 1960s. So much for marriage.
In a rare burst of consistency, as years passed I continued to hold the same view of marriage that I held in my twenties: it’s fine to make a commitment in the eyes of your family, community or god (if applicable), but it’s not fine that the government awards special privileges to the married. Not only were gay people discriminated against, but single people also lived with stigma and financial disadvantages. The end.
When Lee and I met in 1984 we were in our thirties and veterans of failed relationships, including her seven-year marriage to a man. I “got it bad” as one of Lee’s southernisms went, for this tiny woman with spiky purple hair. I loved the way she laughed out loud, actually saying “ha, ha, ha.” Still the baggage we arrived with led us into screaming fights, breaking things and breaking up. But our timing was lucky. We were each ready to stop blaming someone else for our own ambivalence. So we worked out our early pushing and pulling and moved in together.
In the 1990s I dismounted my high horse long enough for us to register as domestic partners so that Lee could get on my health insurance. We then had the same rights and responsibilities as married people in California, except that married people didn’t have to pay taxes on their spouses’ health insurance like we did. And because we still had no rights outside of California I feared that I wouldn’t be admitted to the ICU if Lee were in an accident in another state.
In 2004 Mayor Gavin Newsom directed that San Francisco issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. Friends rushed to City Hall, waited in long lines in the rain, married and received bouquets from strangers. Although I thought it was sweet and exciting, Lee and I were busy going to my nephew’s bar mitzvah in New York, and besides, we still didn’t want to get married. So we weren’t disappointed when after a month we realized we had lost the chance.
By the time we marked our uncertain date of a twentieth anniversary in July of that year, Massachusetts had legalized gay marriage and other states followed. Friends travelled to Vermont, Connecticut, or Iowa (well, I don’t think any of them actually went to Iowa), or even Canada, to get married.
Another short window opened for gay marriage in California in 2008. Before Proposition 8 passed, again making such unions illegal, I attended a gaggle of gay weddings. At one celebration a friend urged me to marry because this was a civil rights movement and marriage was taking a stand.
Wait. I supported civil rights. Maybe she was correct. Yes, people should have the right to marry. Everyone should. But I couldn’t view participating in an institution I believed was itself unjust in the same light as facing down a fire hose in Birmingham.
Friends also reported that their relationships felt more committed or legitimate after they married. But I couldn’t imagine any transformation in our relationship. We already owned a house, dogs, and a joint brokerage account. We knew all each other’s foibles and loved each other anyway. We had by then supported each other through the deaths of two parents and had remodeled our kitchen without breaking up. It sometimes felt as if we were being bullied into getting married.
Fast forward to 2013 when the Supreme Court overturned sections of the Defense of Marriage Act on the same day it overruled Proposition 8, again legalizing gay marriage in California. By now we were in our sixties. Our reaction: this is great and oh no, do we really have to consider getting married now?
Occasionally, over a cup of coffee or a glass of wine, one of us brought up the topic. In 29 years we had become expert at putting off things we didn’t want to deal with, big or small. Having our floors refinished – good idea, but so much trouble, maybe next year. Getting married – well, maybe now that there were federal rights, we should consider it. We could inherit and manipulate our social security benefits. And we really didn’t want to keep paying our accountant for completing married tax returns in California while filing as single for the federal government. And if anything ill befell us outside of California, we would be treated as spouses for medical purposes. Maybe after our trip to Croatia?
The trip came and went and then it was October and if we were going to marry we wanted to do it before the end of the tax year. Lee suggested December 16 – what would have been her mother’s 95th birthday – for an event that we were sure she would have loved. City Hall had an opening at 11:30 a.m. and we took it.
I know that sounds as if I didn’t have an ounce of romantic feeling about it, and I didn’t. It was a business contract: file some papers, and voila, the end of that. We’d send our friends e-mail after the fact.
Then Lee suggested we have a little luncheon following the ceremony. Why not? We could just celebrate our relationship. At our age news often arrived of illnesses or deaths. Here was a good excuse to gather people for a happy occasion.
We invited a few close friends in the area. And then we invited friends and relatives from out of town because, surely, none of them would travel long distances on six weeks’ notice for what was really not a big deal. I carefully worded e-mails to people back east so that they would in fact not attend. (“We’d love to have you with us, but we totally understand if you can’t make the trip.”)
Here’s what I learned. Mention the word “wedding” and everyone gets excited and wants to come, even from the East Coast and the Midwest. And although I was touched by their enthusiasm, I became depressed and so did Lee. We consoled each other with the thought that at least on this issue we were in perfect harmony.
Then there was the question of clothes. Julie, the closest person to a daughter in our lives, sent me links to websites selling beaded flapper dresses. Our friend Jane insisted we needed hats, specifically pillbox hats with veils, and offered to make them. After some half hearted and unsuccessful shopping I decided to wear clothes I already owned, a black dress with a wine colored jacket.
Our guests, including my orthodox Jewish relatives, Lee’s WASP brother and sister-in-law, old dykes and young friends, posed a challenge for the caterer. But she didn’t bat an eye at coming up with gluten-free, dairy-free, vegan options (quinoa and roast vegetables, anyone?) and procured kosher food for my cousins. Even after these preparations were made I couldn’t get the words “I’m getting married,” out of my mouth without feeling like I was speaking in tongues.
Meanwhile, my 92-year-old mother, who couldn’t say the word “marriage” in reference to us for completely different reasons, wanted to know if we were serving fruit and jello for dessert. Her interest in planning the menu, and eventual offer to pay for the luncheon as her gift, astonished and touched me. Based on her experience with complaints at a lifetime of bar mitzvahs and weddings, she proved to be a font of wisdom about why it was better to have a buffet than a plated meal. (“That way they won’t look at each other’s food and say, ‘I should have ordered that.’”)
Then the out-of-town guests arrived and the day was upon us. It’s hard to stay cynical in the grandeur of San Francisco City Hall with its Beaux Arts architecture and a dome higher than the United States Capitol. Once we got through the metal detector and people we knew approached and hugged us, something new happened: I got excited.
A lovely woman wearing a black robe met us in the clerk’s office, asked a few questions about what we wanted to be called, then asked where we wanted the ceremony held. Although we had been told that we would either be in an office or in the rotunda and that there was no way to know beforehand, we were married at the top of the grand staircase, in front of what most people would call a Christmas tree, but this being San Francisco City Hall was instead the “World Tree of Hope,” covered by origami cranes with hopes inscribed on them. “I hope for a better economy,” read the one crane I managed to read. A statue of Harvey Milk grinned from behind the tree.
Lee and I stood on the landing. The tree shimmered behind us. Despite the riot act we had been read about only having six people at the ceremony, and the hours we had spent obsessing about who they would be, the Justice of the Peace gestured at our party of about thirty and said, “They can come up here and join you.” We each wore the hats that Jane had made, little fascinators sprouting long feathers and veils, perfectly coordinated with our outfits. The dress Lee had ordered online miraculously matched my jacket. Friends and relatives snapped pictures with their phones. An orchestra of middle-schoolers wearing blue sweaters was taking their seats in the center of the rotunda below us.
And then we were holding each other’s hands and I heard the orchestra tune up and almost burst out laughing. I just knew they were going to play Christmas music, not my first choice of music to marry by. Lee’s now longish hair had streaks of gray peeking through her veil. Soon we said, “I do” and were pronounced legal spouses for life. The band members applauded and then burst into a rousing rendition of “San Francisco, open your golden gate.” Lee beamed at me and I was happier than I ever would have imagined.