Fight to Be Ordinary

Recently, someone asked me what it felt like to be married in Massachusetts. After all, our state has had marriage equality longer than any other in the nation, since May 17, 2004 (which, not coincidentally, is the 50th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education). How does the controversy manifest these days? He was clearly surprised by my answer. And because the issue is current, I thought I'd try to explain what it feels like to you, too.

But first, the background. Today the Ninth Circuit will issue a decision in Perry v. Brown. You remember Perry; it's the best-known of the more than half a dozen federal court marriage-equality challenges now underway. Brought by celebrity lawyer team David Boies and Ted Olsen, this challenge would overturn California's Proposition 8 and reinstate same-sex marriages in California—although everyone expects the case to go either en banc or straight to SCOTUS before anything is final. (Chris Geidner has more background here.) Perry is not my favorite of the marriage cases, as I've said before—I'm partial to the GLAD challenges that challenge the Defense of Marriage Act, Gill in the First Circuit and Pedersen in the Second, and I have a small crush on the ACLU's Edie Windsor case in the Second Circuit. But Perry is the most well known and widely watched. 

Meanwhile, keep in mind that the future of marriage equality does not live and die with Perry. Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont, Connecticut, Iowa, New York, and Washington, D.C., already marry same-sex couples; still more states have broad civil-union or domestic-partnership recognition that help same-sex pairs care for each other. (Check out the Freedom to Marry equality map here.) And as Abby Rapoport so handily summed up recently, four other states are working their way toward marriage: Washington, where the state senate recently passed a marriage bill that is expected to be passed by the house and signed by the governor; New Jersey, whose legislature will be voting in the next two weeks, although Governor Christie says he'll veto; Maine, where advocates are putting the question back on the ballot and where statewide polls show sufficient support; and Maryland, where the governor is pushing it. In Congress, the Respect for Marriage Act has been introduced, and I think it's safe to say it will be steadily gaining supporters, year after year. 

So, what's it like to live in a state where there's plenty of married same-sex couples? 

It's like nothing happened whatsoever. 

Back in the day, when supporting marriage equality was controversial among lesbians (patriarchal institution! ignores the real problems of the poor! won't end hatred for the young'uns!), I had some, shall we say, entertaining discussions at dinner parties. I was in favor of the effort; my social cohort, in general, was not. They thought it was too conventional, too patriarchal, too limiting. Out on the margins, we were inventing new family forms. (Snort! Like our heterosexual sibs haven't also created extended families of friends! Marriages may end, but shared custody is forever.) The folks who were clamoring for marriage needed to be re-educated. These arguments made me gag. I've always been annoyed by "radical" activists who think they know what people should want or who think their group is "special." Once I looked into the history of marriage, I realized that the institution was constantly changing, reshaped by those who inhabited it to suit each culture and class, each era and economy. The bad old 1950s' model of marriage was an aberration. Since 1850, it had been changing in ways that steadily eliminated rules that defined marriage's obligations, limitations, and responsibilities by sex—and led to the push to eliminate the last remaining sex-based rule in Western marriage law: the entrance requirement. Which would push the platonic idea of marriage in an even more gender-neutral and feminist direction.

Within my lefty lezzie social circle, at dinner parties and the like, I argued that gaining marriage rights would undo an enormous amount of prejudice. If we could inhabit the familiar social forms—whether or not individual couples chose to do so—our loves would become socially legible, comprehensible to those around us who didn't think very much about LGBT life. "Homo" might be strange, but everyone understands "marriage." This got no end of scoffing. It was kind of fun being tarred as a reactionary right-winger among my putative peeps and a radical lefty lezzie when I wrote in the mainstream press. A danger to society, c'est moi

Then we won. A year after Goodridge—the Massachusetts Supreme Court decision that legalized same-sex marriage in the statewon, one of my former opponents—now married to her longtime partner—came up to me and said, "You were right. Marriage changed everything."

An enormous layer of bias and suspicion has simply evaporated. As Barney Frank once said, people weren't really prejudiced; they just thought they should be. Before we were strange. Now we're visibly ordinary. The gay folks who don't want to get married don't—just like many single or cohabiting heterosexual couples. The downside, of course, is that we get the same social pressures to get married and have kids—in fact, maybe a little extra, among folks who want to make a point of how supportive they are. But I can live with that. 

Let me tell some personal stories. When I started getting seriously involved with my now-wife, I would occasionally pick her son up at the school bus. They lived in a conservative manufacturing city in midstate, far away from either the People's Republic of Cambridge or the Happy Valley of Northhampton. As I waited, I'd sometimes chat with a retired older white man—I think he'd been a machinist—who was waiting for his grandson. After he mentioned, once, that he couldn't stand the Boston Globe, that leftist rag, I did my best to be circumspect about any personal opinions or, ahem, proclivities. But one day he spotted me and my gal at a school function. He went out of his way to come talk to us, and made a point of telling us, repeatedly, what great parents we were, and what a great job we were doing raising our boy. I wasn't even the boy's stepmother yet. We had only been dating for about a year and a half. But this man wanted to make clear that he was on our side. And he wasn't the only one. I've had more experiences like that than I can recount. 

But here's what's still more common: People who don't react at all. As I've said here before, I grew up in the Mesozoic era of gay rights, when kids on Cambridge streets screamed epithets that I'd never heard of as I walked past, when you could be beaten up or killed for being gay and the mainstream news media wouldn't notice. You'd watch people's faces closely when you mentioned your "friend," to see whether you would get recognition, disgust, recoil, surprise, or acknowledgement. We avoided personal pronouns when talking about our social lives: "My friend and I went to see The Terminator; they liked it more than I did." 

So it's giddying to say "wife"—to the doctor's receptionist, or the tow truck driver, or the teacher's assistant—and get no reaction whatsoever. Some days I say it over and over just to get that absolute lack of response. My wife, my wife, my wife. I might as well be saying "my husband," for all the reaction I get. It makes me giggle. We've been exposed as boring. We're landscape. We're pavement. We're middle-aged ladies who worry about the mortgage, the snow, and annoying neighbors who don't pick up dog poop. We're married. So?

I am not saying that prejudice is gone. Thirty percent of the state still thinks we shouldn't be allowed to marry. As I've written before, kids can still be especially cruel about any deviation from the norm; it breaks my heart that I can't protect our boy from hearing "that's so gay" as a common slur or from hearing the nastier kids tell him that there's something wrong with his family. And the micro-cultures of individual families are crap shoots: Some kids are still being raised to hate themselves or others for same-sex affections or attractions. 

But as a grown-up, my experience is that Massachusetts is way beyond tolerance. It's way beyond acceptance. Twice as many Massachusetts voters approve of same-sex marriage than disapprove. Sixty-seven percent say it's had no effect on their lives. Many that I talk to when I'm reporting on other stories—not the pointy-headed Cambridge intellectuals but folks with deep Boston accents—cannot understand why it's controversial elsewhere in the country. Back when it was still controversial, right after the Goodridge decision, state politicians got a strong lesson in how ordinary we looked and how rabid our opposition looked; my (non-Cambridge) state rep at that time, a townie who'd shifted into politics after working construction, told me he hadn't been sure what he thought until he started getting lobbied. When he saw how crazy the anti-gay folks were, he said, he was shocked to understand the kind of hatred lesbians and gay men had been facing all along. He ended up a fierce LGBT supporter and a supporter of equal-marriage rights. His Church opposed it, he told me—roughly 75 percent of the Massachusetts legislature is Catholic—but this wasn't a religious matter. His bishop (who had been heartily discredited by the child-abuse cover-up) had no business defining marriage for everyone else. 

I know Massachusetts is an outlier state. Things look very different in Alabama or Idaho or Texas. But I wanted to offer a lesbians and gay men glimpse of what's coming for New York, New Jersey, Washington, Maryland—and yes, even California, no matter what the Ninth Circuit decides today.

It'll take awhile to get used to being unexceptional. You'll be surprised at how much more energy you have when you're not preparing yourself to defend against spontaneous venom or disgust. Enjoy. 

*An earlier version of this post called Perry a DOMA challenge. Thanks to Carisa Cunningham of GLAD, who pointed out that Perry does not challenge DOMA. She writes:

In Perry, they represent CA couples who wish to marry in CA – rather than already-married couples who want to access federal benefits but can’t because of DOMA. People lump Perry together with the DOMA cases because they’re both marriage-related, and they’re both on a path to SCOTUS. But they deal with different legal matters.