freedom to marry

It's National Freedom to Marry Week.

I didn't grow up with much idealizing of the ceremony of marriage. My parents were married overseas, in a civil ceremony, so we didn't have any photos of the event, no white gown packed in the attic, no talk of "when you get married you'll be a princess." Yet my parents stayed married until my father's death, and would no doubt still be married today if he had lived. They believed in marriage. They were too old to be baby-boomers, too old to be divorcing when younger friends were. So I grew up with a model of commitment and compromise that is pretty powerful. Even though my parents' marriage and the family they created was by no means free of dysfunctions, addictions, and issues.

In my own relationships I've been a serial monogamist. I stayed too long in one messed-up relationship, because I believed in commitment and because I couldn't see my way out of it. Got my heart broken the next time around, though the break was cleaner and happened much more quickly. Then I went through my dating phase, which I found awkward, since I'm really more of a commitment and fidelity type of gal.

And then eventually I met my partner. And we made our commitment to each other, to sharing our lives and our hearts. Relationships aren't easy -- we've been to therapy, we work on our communication skills, and we're always still learning new things about each other. But I've found someone who shares my values, who inspires me, who comforts me.

The society we live in won't allow us the same basic rights that so many heterosexuals take for granted. My gf can't be on my health insurance plan. We can't get a family rate at my gym, or on our car insurance. We have to create legal work-arounds that will hopefully hold strong in case of a medical emergency, since our relationship isn't recognized by any institution. Yet I know I'm fortunate to live in a time and place where I can live with my partner, where I can be out to my employer and my family and not suffer harrassment or persecution. Many people today don't have it so easy.

I've been thinking a lot about the language of marriage -- analysts think that much of the anti-gay feeling that comes through in polls on the marriage issue has to do with the actual word "marriage" and all its connotations. That's why the Right has been pushing definitional legislation.

For those of us excluded from legal marriage, the word is powerful too. No matter how creative you try to be with synonyms and euphemisms ("girlfriend" sounds so teenaged, and "partner" so lawyerly) , no matter how much you know yourselves to be in love, and living out a committed relationship -- it's still not the same as being able to say that you are married. Because of the culture we live in, when you use other words, it's sort of like you're hedging a bit. Or when you take over the dominant words, sometimes people are confused. In casual conversation, I tend to refer to my gf's father as my father-in-law -- it's just easier somehow. But a colleague of mine stopped me recently, when she heard me say this in a casual setting to people I didn't know very well, and questioned me about it. She thought I was being deceitful somehow. (I should point out that I think it's pretty obvious to most people I deal with that I'm a lesbian, so it's not at all like I'm trying to pass.)

Speech act theory reminds us that the language of the marriage ceremony is of a special class of language (illocutionary statements), language that acts rather than just representing something. Of course that power of action is granted in part by a large network of social/institutional authority and power -- it's not just anybody who can say "I now pronounce you..." and have it be "real" or meaningful. By the same token, you can't just say that you're married unless someone has performed that ceremony for you.

All over the United States, people were performing acts of civil disobedience and celebrating gay and lesbian unions this past weekend. My partner and I were among them. We got married, in a group ceremony with other same-sex couples. It doesn't give us the legal protections or the financial benefits. But it still means something to us. And until it does give us the same basic rights that most of you can easily obtain, we'll be talking and campaigning and voting and protesting.