On marriage, the state, and the limits of legitimacy

Mike holds a fancy envelope reading "Marriage License," while Jarod holds his shoulders. The shot is tight, only showing torsos, to focus on the license

I got married last week. Well, sort of. Actually Jarod and I were married in July of 2011, in front of about 150 friends and relatives, with rings and nice outfits and a photographer and an officiant and a sound system and a catered reception and dancing. It was, for all intents and purposes, a wedding. (And a very pleasant one at that — I’m still pleased at the way we managed to thread the needle of tradition and make a ceremony that was, at once, recognizable to everyone and yet also not beholden to any particular tradition.) And yet, it also wasn’t a wedding: we signed no papers, had no license, weren’t legally married in any sense whatsoever, because at the time, July of 2011, the Ohio Constitution included §15.11, ‘Marriage Amendment’: “Only a union between one man and one woman may be a marriage valid in or recognized by this state and its political subdivisions. This state and its political subdivisions shall not create or recognize a legal status for relationships of unmarried individuals that intends to approximate the design, qualities, significance or effect of marriage.”

That amendment is still on the books as I’m writing, but the United States Supreme Court defanged it on May 26th when it held in Obergefell v. Hodges that, under the Fourteenth Amendment, same-sex couples are guaranteed the fundamental right to marry. And so, after a wonderful weekend singing and celebrating with the Columbus Gay Men’s Chorus, Jarod and I went to the courthouse on Monday and got a marriage license. The experience was, more than anything, wonderfully banal: we were the only applicants in the marriage license office at the time, and the clerk was friendly but also utterly businesslike. We paid our fee, swore that we were neither intoxicated, nor consanguinous to a closer degree than that of second cousins, nor encumbered by any other marriages or unions, and went on our way. Later that day we had dinner with his parents, with my aunt and uncle who drove up from Cincinnati, and with our friend Dwayne, who happens to be ordained by the Universal Life Church. We finished our meals, slid down to the clean end of the long table to sign some papers, and that was it. Jarod, Dwayne, and I went to rehearsal, and our families went off to do their own things.

I don’t mean to downplay the joy that I felt on the day of the SCOTUS decision, nor the happiness I feel in being now legally married to my husband. In mundane terms, it changed nothing: the basement is still leaky, we still bicker about stupid nonsense, we still sit in the same places on the couch to watch a movie. But simultaneously it changed everything: we are married in every sense of the word, and that knowledge subtly permeates every moment I spend with Jarod. I suspect that most who doubt the importance of social and legal recognition of relationships have never been on both sides of the line.

But it is for exactly that reason — the power of social and legal recognition of relationships — that I have become, in the past week, even more suspicious than I already was of the primacy of marriage in our society. Whether they’re about companies removing domestic partner benefits now that marriage is broadly available, disabled couples caught in a double-bind, or just a wave of well-meaning-but-invasive family and friends asking a whole new group of people “so when are you going to tie the knot?,” the press has been full of the usual counterintuitive thinkpieces reporting on marriage equality. I hope we don’t relegate these pieces to the usual peanut gallery, though: this country’s monomaniacal focus on marriage hurts families.

We hear a lot about family values in the media, but I worry about the families that aren’t valued: the committed couples who won’t get married for political or financial reasons; the friends co-parenting their children in intentional community; the polyfidelitous partnerships striving to maintain their bonds; the elderly friends supporting each other to the end. The traditional nuclear family is a beautiful structure for the furtherance of society and culture, but no more so than these others. I’m tired of only hearing about conservative religious family values; I want to hear about progressive, radical religious family values, values that honor and embrace families as diverse and magnificent as the gods we worship.

At our wedding — our real wedding, not our paper one — Jarod and I asked our friend Meg to read an occasional poem that Neil Gaiman wrote for another wedding. I revisited it recently, and was happy to see how well it still reads, even in light of my discontent over the ways we exclude others in our current marriage wars. As we, societally, embark on “all the work and negotiation and building and talk” of figuring out what to do with ourselves going forward, it’s incumbent upon people of goodwill and love (and yes, of faith and faiths) to work for greater, more sweeping change. I hope that we can find the courage to build a grander structure, “a house made of bones and dreams” that expands to cherish and support family and relationship wherever it may be, not just when it looks like a Rockwell painting. This is the real work of relationship equality, “a wish of trust and love and hope […] and tomorrows and tomorrows and tomorrows.” Be it so.

This for you, for both of you,

a small poem of happiness
filled with small glories and little triumphs
a fragile, short cheerful song
filled with hope and all sorts of futures

Because at weddings we imagine the future
Because it’s all about “what happened next?”
all the work and negotiation and building and talk
that makes even the tiniest happily ever after
something to be proud of for a wee forever

This is a small thought for both of you
like a feather or a prayer,
a wish of trust and love and hope
and fine brave hearts and true.

Like a tower, or a house made all of bones and dreams
and tomorrows and tomorrows and tomorrows

© Neil Gaiman, 2006; I hope he will indulge my reposting it.


4 thoughts on “On marriage, the state, and the limits of legitimacy

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