While I was working at Lambda Legal, attending evening meetings and staffing information tables at Pride Festivals in four different cities each summer, my stepdaughter mentioned in passing one day that it was “illegal” for two women to get married. She stopped me dead in my tracks as I was crossing the living room. “What do you mean by ‘illegal’?” I asked her. I needed to understand if she felt my relationship with her mother was something to be ashamed of – after twelve years of my partner’s care to be “out” always, everywhere, casual about it but proud, running interference with teachers and caretakers, seamlessly dropping my name, our relationship, or the name of her one longtime partner before me into conversation with parents of her daughter’s friends. My stepdaughter had tagged along to San Francisco Pride Parades year after year, and was emerging from her preteen years in the suburbs of Chicago with a single mom newly-partnered.
She seemed to feel she was in trouble with me, and began backtracking. “Well, I just meant… I mean… isn’t it illegal?” I tried to channel my boss at the time, a brilliant attorney whose legal arguments set precedent all over the country. I said, “It isn’t that we are breaking the law to form a family, or a couple – It’s just that the law doesn’t recognize our family. The law doesn’t support us, but it doesn’t make us criminals.” Was I splitting hairs, or offering a fresh perspective, possibly even a watershed moment? Her eyes relaxed, her body softened, and the corners of her mouth turned up, almost into a smile. She seemed relieved. It may be that she felt relieved simply because I wasn’t mad.
But this is why I believe marriage should be legal for any two people who want it. There are plenty of practical reasons involving inheritance and hospital visitation, taxes and property rights, but for me the main reason is that without the law, our children – and colleagues, and friends, and the parents of our children’s friends – remain confused.
I sometimes joke that my partner’s mom is my mother-outlaw. Clearly, she’s not my mother-in-law, if the law doesn’t support who I am to her daughter. But is she really living outside the law, or is it just us, just our family – two moms, two daughters now – living outside the law?
We attended a friends’ wedding in Vermont last week. Vermont has full marriage equality – extending to same-sex couples all the rights and responsibilities of marriage that are available under state law. New York does, too; it’s new there. In fact, on our way to Vermont, we stayed at The American Hotel in New York, whose owners have been together 26 years and are suddenly planning their wedding with glee. Standing up for the brides at this lovely Vermont Inn were their two children on one side, and a brother, sister and nephew on the other. A wedding – a true union recognized worldwide, with a ceremony steeped in centuries of tradition – involves the joining of two families. It always has. I cried at this simple beauty.
But what does a wedding have to do with marriage? Where do romance and life and law intersect?
When Illinois passed civil unions into law, same-sex couples who’d been together for two or five or fifteen years asked one another, “Are you going to get a civil union?” “Are you planning to be unionized?” “Are you two civil?” These questions, void of romance, full with irony but giddiness, too, left many of us still perplexed.
Before civil unions became law in Illinois, my partner and I had planned to celebrate our ten-year anniversary in a big way – invite family and friends to join us in a giant reception hall, or under a canopy by the water somewhere, pass hors d’oeuvres, pour wine, mix bourbon with sweet vermouth and two cherries, raise a glass, spin a few tunes, kick up our heels, and revel in the love and commitment we have for one another. Do civil unions change this? Do we need, at this party, to renew the vows we shared in our pajamas on the back deck before adopting our youngest daughter? Should we wear special clothes? Do we accept civil unions as progress and sign-up right away, or do we live our lives as we have so far, and celebrate what we are truly proud of – this relationship, and the tenacity and daily romance both our families and friends have helped us to keep? Who is a wedding for, anyway? The couple, their children, society as a whole?
We held a quiet ring exchange before adopting our youngest daughter. It was the right choice for us at the time. Later, when her friends at preschool asked us questions, I could twist the ring on my finger and ask if their parents had rings, too, and if it meant they would love and care for each other forever and always. Now our youngest is seven, and civil unions have been signed into law. Do we need to make a new choice? Who are we choosing for?