Credit: Kevin D. Clarke/Donnay on Flickr, under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
(WOMENSENEWS)–We wait in the office, the two of us, on narrow metal chairs, the first time I have shared a doctor’s appointment with another adult. In the silence after the nurse leaves, the idea of us, in this small room, in this rural corner of the state, is almost enough to make me bolt.
Old butch-femme roles loom over us, like some caricature of the husband-wife model that has shaped every legal wedding ever to take place in this country, and all because Holly is in a linen blouse and nice pants, dressed for this afternoon’s end-of-the-semester party at Smith College, where she now works, while I’m in worn jeans and ratty sneakers, ready to return to the garden on this lovely day off.
Now, mostly free of the cultural ideals about how women should look and act and attend to their bodies, we’re faced with a new challenge: liberating ourselves from notions of “wife” and “wife” and/or “husband.” It’s as though the very act of sitting together in this room, ready to answer a series of questions before our blood is drawn, links us with every heterosexual union that ever preceded us. There is no model for how two women go through this process; there are simply the steps necessary for intended couples in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, the first of which is proof that neither of us has syphilis.
The nurse-practitioner asks about our general health and listens to our hearts. My body tells it all: Despite my jeans and muscles, my would-be tough stance, my pulse is hammering away about 20 percent faster than usual.
I’m getting married and I’m not sure what to make of it.
On the way home, we stop in the village and saunter down the sidewalk, wanting someone to see our matching Band-Aids, wanting someone to ask how we are. When Christin pulls up on her three-speed bike, her long red hair taking longer to come to a stop, we tell her the news and confess to mixed feelings. “It’s not surprising,” she says in an effort to be reassuring. “Normal people have them, too.”
‘Not-Normal’ is Familiar
By Christin’s definition, “not-normal” is where I’ve long been, an outlaw because of who I love, not because I sought out the identity. And then, of course, I liked the role. There’s a certain freedom to being put outside the law, in a region without rules. There’s an adrenaline rush that comes with flagrance, a giddiness with being reckless. We get to decide how we love and how we show it. We get to make up the rules and know they might change tomorrow.
At the same time, we’re never quite free of reminders of all we can’t choose, which, in the world of marriage, number about one thousand from which gays and lesbians are excluded. Health insurance, pension plans, tax deductions, Medicaid, survivorship and social security benefits–those have become rewards granted to straight wedded couples. Yet, despite the fact that we too create warm homes, and tend each other through fevers and surgeries, and take turns staying strong when people we love die or when children are threatened or when nightmares cut through our sleep, our union isn’t recognized by state or federal governments. We are ineligible for family leave, for guaranteed hospital visitation or access to intensive care units, for spousal (lower) rates on car insurance, travel fares or packaged vacation plans.
We aren’t included in “a family’s right to know” in legal or health matters, nor are we protected from having to testify against each other in court. We aren’t even permitted to eat the lobsters the other might catch, unless both of us have purchased similar fishing licenses. (A straight person with the proper license can share the haul with anyone in his or her family.)
Between Twin Impulses
That leaves us denied, shut out, occasionally belligerent, or working extra hard to prove our lives are truly no different from anyone else’s. We dance between the twin impulses, as the feminist scholar Catharine Stimpson once put it, of transgression and domesticity. We want to be bad, and we want to shack up. We like our exemption from stifling codes of conformity, and we want to cuddle and make nests, like the billions of lovers before us. The “urge to merge” that runs rampant among lesbians–captured in the old joke about the U-Haul that a lesbian brings on the second date–means we dive into the sharing of lives and clothes, beds and dreams. We even mutter “Marry me” in intimate moments, as though the verb were the only word powerful enough to convey the urgency of our love.
But then, like a good outlaw–and here I have to differentiate from Holly, who lived a married life for two decades with a Cuban husband–I often mocked the idea of marriage. It’s a deed, not a license, I would say; it subsumes a woman into a man’s name and property, which makes it tough to find female friends after they surrender their identity. It’s a capitalist extravaganza, a huge expense for a few hours of showtime, a setup for years of imbalance. Marriage, I would point out, ups the degree of difficulty for any woman who wants to find her own way in a world that gives men first dibs on almost everything.
So what if saying someone is married is the fastest shorthand in most social situations? So what if such women never have to pause on the form that instructs us to “check one–single, married, divorced, widowed”? Who really cares? At least, who spent much time caring about it until Massachusetts’ highest court ruled in November 2003 that the state’s constitution guaranteed equality for all its citizens, and that gay couples could no longer be excluded from the institution of marriage? I sure didn’t. Yet the subsequent turn of events has made it seem unavoidable.
According to the justices, anything short of marriage would “confer an official stamp of approval on the destructive stereotype that same-sex relationships are inherently unstable and inferior to opposite-sex relationships and are not worthy of respect.” The court gave the legislature 18 days to remedy the injustice, reminding lawmakers that “the benefits accessible by way of marriage license are enormous, touching nearly every aspect of life and death.” May 17, 2004, they said, is when gay marriages can begin taking place.
Which left us in a quandary. If the legislature didn’t derail the court’s ruling, would we take advantage of the option and marry?
For months we avoided answering the question.
Catherine Reid directs the undergraduate creative writing program at Warren Wilson College, where she teaches courses in creative nonfiction and environmental writing. She is the author of "Coyote: Seeking the Hunter in Our Midst " and of essays that have appeared in such journals as the Georgia Review, Fourth Genre, Bellevue Literary Review and Massachusetts Review. She lives in Asheville, N.C.
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