I slept late yesterday, having had a rough night. So I was awakened by my husband’s usual “I’m coming home for lunch” phone call. I mumbled something that I thought sounded like “Hello?” and heard my husband’s voice, so excited I could barely make out what he was saying: “DOMA is DEAD!”
A tad bit befuddled, as I always am in my uncaffeinated state, I made a noise that sounded something like “ohuh?” and he repeated what he had said a second time. This time it sank in, and I sat there on the edge of the bed. John was still talking, elaborating on the SCOTUS decision and the concurrent ruling regarding Prop 8, but I couldn’t make much sense of what I was hearing. For one thing, as I said, I had not yet had my caffeine ration, and in that state even “good morning” can sound like ancient Aramaic to me. But the other thing keeping me from hearing him was that I was suddenly choking back tears and trying not to sob out loud into the phone. John asked me to boot up his laptop and said he’d be home in a few minutes, then we hung up and I took several deep breaths, put on my robe, and went to make the coffee and boot up our computers; the usual morning routine steadied me a bit and by the time John got home I was actually able to talk about it.
Yet even now as I type these words, my mind is still racing with the magnitude of what just happened. I have lived to witness history. For the first time in the fifty years I have been on this planet, I heard the highest court in the land tell me that I was no longer a second-class citizen.
For most of my life, the idea that the “institution” (God I hate that word; sounds like getting married is the equivalent of being hospitalized) of marriage would ever be open to me was about as foreign as one of those bizarre flavors of ice cream that I understand the Japanese are so fond of (octopus gelato, anyone?). Despite this, I was married to all intents and purposes from the time I was twenty-one. He was manipulative, passive-aggressive, and could be extremely cruel, but I was no angel either: I had inherited my mother’s hot temper and on more than one occasion our fights broke out into outright brawls. And yet we stayed married for fifteen years, in spite of our problems and in spite of the fact that we had no legal document tying us together. We lasted longer than many of my straight high school classmates did in their first marriages; most of them were filing papers before the fifth anniversary and none of them made it to the tenth.
So we never used the words “married” or “husband;” we usually referred to each other by the generic term “partner” which sounds rather passionless but which I preferred to “lover,” which sounded like a passing fling, and “longtime companion,” which looked good in the AIDS obits and made a great movie title, but as a term to be used in casual conversation it was much too cumbersome to ever catch on. But on the rare occasions when we actually talked about it, we agreed that we considered ourselves married; like many LGBTs of our generation, we told ourselves that we did not “need” that piece of paper to validate our relationship (heterosexuals were doing the same thing, but for such different reasons that I really do not count them here).
So after fifteen years I found myself single and on the slippery slope to age forty. I picked myself up, dusted myself off, and looked round to see what I ought to do next. The thought of dating made me ill, but I’ve always been a social person, so when I was not out with friends, it was perhaps inevitable that I would go to the local gay club, a place called The Den that in its heyday had three main bars: one on the dance floor which was closed off by heavy doors from the large central bar where the music emanated from a jukebox and people could at least communicate even if it did require shouting, and a small, cozy bar in the center of the square building, also with doors that closed, that was my favorite of the three because there a person could actually have a conversation with another person, even if all that was said was “Your place or mine?” Not that that was said all that often anymore; for one thing, I was not the cute young thing I had been when my first husband and I met; for another the AIDS pandemic had put the kibosh on casual sex for many of us (but of course by no means all).
Unfortunately, the Den had by this time removed the doors that separated the three bars; I was never to find out why, but the effect this had was that the entire place vibrated with the sounds blasting from the dance floor and there wasn’t a single place in the entire establishment where people talk without having to shout (and that included the rest rooms).
Still, it was all we had in the section of central New Jersey where I lived, and they did have happy hour from five PM to eight PM on Thursdays, where food was served and the music was mercifully cut off. But it did not take me long to realize that the bar scene was no longer the place to meet a potential partner. Not that I was actually looking, mind you, but when I compared it to the bar scene of sixteen years earlier, it was not too hard to figure out.
In the end I stopped going; it got boring, and worse, no one seemed to want to talk to anyone anymore. It was as if each person was walking around in a protective bubble with a “Keep Out” sign on it (or at least “Keep Your Distance,” which amounts to the same thing).
So I turned my attention elsewhere. Moving from the town where Dennis and I lived to a place closer to my job also entailed changing doctors, and I soon found myself at the Ryan White Clinic in Somerville NJ. The Clinic had a weekly support group, which I joined, and I was encouraged by the Nurse Practitioner who ran the place to get involved in the Ryan White Planning Council. Which I did, but that is a topic for another day.
I made the colossal mistake of going out on a few dates with one of the guys from the group. I should have known better; it was too soon, and it was not long before I was in over my head. I was not ready, and I realized that the relationship was not going to go anywhere, but he had gone and fallen in love with me. I had to let him down gently, but I felt almost worse than when I had been the one getting rejected.
Then one day a friend of mine from group mentioned a friend of his that he thought I might like to meet. I was wary, but I thought, “What the hell, at least I can make another new friend,” so I agreed to meet the guy.
Well I certainly was not prepared for what happened. I always thought “love at first sight” was a device of bad romance novelists and B movies, but I took one look into John’s baby blues and it was something very like it; my knees actually went weak.
We went from “Nice to meet you” to “Would you like to go out with me?” to “I love you” to “Will you marry me?” in a little over a month; our friends thought we had taken leave of our senses, but I had never seen anything so clearly in my life as the fact that I wanted to marry this man.
So we located a Unitarian Church, at the time one of only three denominations that were performing same-sex unions (the others were the United Church of Christ and of course the Metropolitan Community Church), and on 21 December 2002 we got married. It was not legally recognized, but when we slipped those rings on each other’s fingers and clung tightly to each other, I realized that I had actually done something I never thought I’d be able to do.
Then came the summer of 2011; we were in our ninth year together (and had moved to New York in 2005) when Governor Andrew Cuomo signed marriage equality into law in New York State. Four days after the law went into effect, we went down to City Hall and made it legal; the really great moment of that day was the large group of people from our church who came to celebrate with us.
Our anniversary is still 21 December; as far as we are concerned we’ve been married going on eleven years. The law is finally beginning to catch on to the fact that equal means equal.
It has been a long time coming, but if anyone had told me thirty-five years ago, when I was a fifteen-year-old crying himself to sleep at night in terror of the prospect of life as a Gay man, that some day I could marry the man I loved, without shame and with the full recognition of the State, I would not have believed it.
Miracles do still happen.