Amy Bernstein

SAN FRANCISCO (WOMENSENEWS)–I never understood why people wanted to get married until I did it myself.

Nanette and I have been together for nine years. From the moment she exploded in my consciousness at a journalism conference, I’ve taken it as an article of faith that I would spend my life with her, and I know she feels the same way. That shared assumption was close enough to marriage, I thought.

Everyone knows us as a couple. We’ve do marriage-like things: we bought a car together. We share household expenses. We co-own our home in San Francisco. We’ve done the legal work to insure that we make the important decisions for one another, when the time comes. We have a dog, for heaven’s sake. Doesn’t all that add up to marriage?

No. It doesn’t. Because what I’ve just described is essentially private. It’s a set of understandings and arrangements that Nan and I worked out together and mostly by ourselves. But marriage is a public statement and a public recognition. And here’s how I came to understand how important it is.

The first glimmer came to me the day Nanette and I decided to join the crowd down at City Hall. It was a Saturday, Valentine’s Day, two days after the San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom had started granting marriage licenses to same-sex couples. We decided to do it for different reasons. For me, it was initially political: I wanted to be part of the revolution. For Nan, it was more personal from the get-go. She wanted to bind us together for reasons of love and security, legal and otherwise.

When we got to City Hall before noon, there was already a line around the block. We clearly had hours of waiting ahead of us, so we settled in and got to know our neighbors. The couple ahead of us, two women, had already had civil union ceremonies in Hawaii, Canada and Vermont. But this one was different; you could tell by their obvious joy, the way they were giddily calling friends and family to tell them what they were up to (no one had time to plan for this). What struck me was how seriously they were taking this, even after all their previous ceremonies. This was different. Why?

The answer was right there on that line: Hundreds of couples who’d tossed aside their weekend plans to stand for hours. Friends and family and lots of kids joined the couples on line to keep them company during the wait, to celebrate, and ultimately to witness something that a mere three days earlier would have been impossible.

We were all about to take the same step, taking arrangements that were intensely personal and putting them out there publicly, transforming the very nature of our relationships. I started to get how important the very act of getting married is, as perfect strangers, gay and straight, young and old, came out that day to give us roses, to offer us cake, just to wish us well.

Ministers moved through the line, offering to bless the unions that were about to happen. It was almost like a slow-moving parade. There was a deeply affecting spirit on the line, a sense that we were all about to participate in a ceremony of profound importance, a camaraderie based on sharing a wedding day. A real wedding day.

When we eventually did get our license the next day (five hours in line on Saturday led to three more hours of waiting Sunday) and were officially married, something changed for us. Nanette said that she felt a greater sense of permanence and thought we were being nicer to one another. I think that’s because the act of marriage centers on giving up your insistence on a separate identity. That’s probably what Nan was talking about.

I felt a deeper comfort, a sense that nothing could rattle us. We’ve always been invested in one another; now it seems as if there’s no risk. The tint of our relationship has changed.

The before-and-after difference also brought home the reason why civil unions just won’t hack it in the end. They’re not real marriages. They’re ersatz marriages, marriage-lite, designed to give gay people a semblance of the real thing without actually giving them the real thing. They’re not recognized across jurisdictions. They don’t carry much in the way of rights and responsibilities. There’s no mainstream ritual of social acceptance to mark the passage. And those are the things that I now know count: The very officialness of the act, and society’s respect for it. That’s why the two women in front of us were like a couple of newlyweds, even after three or four union ceremonies–because they were really getting married for the first time.

As for me and Nanette, marriage agrees with us in ways that continue to surprise me. We’ve been sprucing up our place, because now it seems that much more important. We are more considerate of each other. I love that our friends threw us a party and showered us with gifts. I never thought we’d experience the kind of love and support of our relationship that everyone we know has sent our way. But then again, why not? After all, we just got married.

Amy Bernstein is a journalist living in San Francisco with her spouse, their dog and two cats.