Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about gratitude and good fortune, recognizing that I am indeed lucky to have so much to be thankful for. At the top of my list is that I am happily married, something I never in my wildest dreams expected would be possible in my lifetime.
Filling out forms at a doctor’s office or anywhere else used to give me trouble. There is always a place for name, address, phone number, marital status, and emergency contact, and given that this is such basic information, you’d think it would be easy to fill in the blanks. But beginning in the 1980s, I began to struggle with answering the marital status question. The choices were always the same—Single, Married, Divorced—and in my mind, I could make a case for selecting any one of the three.
I could legitimately check Divorced. When my husband and I split up in 1974, I hadn’t objected when he filed the paperwork to make it official, and a notice arrived in the mail two months later certifying me as divorced. But years had passed, I had refashioned my life, and I resented being branded a divorcee. It hardly applied since I was involved in a committed relationship.
The truth is I wanted to check Married because as far as I was concerned, I had made a lifetime commitment to my partner and I considered myself married in every sense of the word. We hadn’t traipsed down the aisle to the altar because same sex marriages were prohibited. We had to make do with a commitment ceremony, a “private arrangement” like Anne Lister’s and Ann Walker’s, that conferred no legal rights or recognition.
Done with the divorced designation and unable to claim the married one, my default became routinely checking Single—even if it was inaccurate. And every time for the next 30+ years that I had to fill out a form and encountered the marital status question, it was a constant reminder that I was not one of the privileged Haves. I was always relegated to the Have Nots, as in You do not have the right to marry the person that you love because you both are women, and marriage is only reserved for men and women marrying each other. Tough luck.
Human rights advocates in the United States and elsewhere continued to challenge the marriage inequality status quo. In 2004, Massachusetts became the first state in the US to legalize gay marriage. But it did my partner and me no good—we lived thousands of miles away in Texas. But very slowly other states began to change their laws too, including Texas’s western neighbor New Mexico. Having relocated to the Land of Enchantment, we could now march ourselves down to the county clerk’s office, plunk down $25 for a marriage license, and get married. Which we did on a lovely Tuesday autumn afternoon in October 2014.
Santa Fe Botanical Garden • October 6, 2014
Being able to legally marry the woman I love is a very big deal to me. Finally I no longer feel like the hungry and shivering little match girl peering into the window of the big house where everyone is warm and well-fed. Finally, we lesbians and male same sex partners in the United States and many other countries are entitled to the same rights as other couples. Mary Lou and I didn’t rush out and buy a set of Mrs. and Mrs. towels, but “my wife” did quickly find its way into our vocabulary.
When I was interviewing Brandy Hyer for my book (p. 27), she said something that struck a chord with me when she mentioned how much she enjoyed referring to the woman she married as her wife. I know exactly what she means.
As I talked to other couples in the course of writing The Gentleman Jack Effect, I discovered we all pretty much feel the same way. That we can legally marry our female partner at last confirms our inclusion in a world that has done everything possible to keep us on the outside. It’s no wonder that it still makes me happy every time I have the occasion to introduce Mary Lou as my wife or meet two women and hear the words, “And this is my wife so-and-so.”
It seems to me that we all have an unwavering sense of pride and joy that we can apply an essential standard of legitimacy to our relationships, and that finally we can publicly declare the status and importance of the women that we love.
I, for one, now can’t help but celebrate every single time I fill out a form and can truthfully check the “married” box. Instead of saying “partner” or “friend” in the blank next to the name of my emergency contact where it asks for the person’s relationship to me, I can write “wife.”
Last month, Mary Lou and I marked our 7th wedding anniversary after a 33-year “engagement.” Equality and validation are not to be taken for granted, and I am incredibly thankful to have a taste of both.
Anyone who’s been in a long-term relationship knows it only succeeds when both people are willing to work to keep it going. Wedding ceremonies—and ours was no exception—come with promises that bear repeating from time to time. Here’s what the court in New Mexico asks a couple to commit to:
With this ring, I thee wed and promise to offer courage when burdens come our way, and to love and cherish you in our old age as I love you now. I offer you the strength of my support, respect, trust, and understanding. I will encourage you to be the person you truly want to be. I offer you the best of me, and my heart will be open to you always.
I’d say these are pretty good promises to live by. And I’m so grateful I finally got to make them.