The day before my wife and I left for our "formal" wedding in Chicago (we'd already been married several months ago at the courthouse), a co-worker approached my wife to ask, "So, who is, like... the man?"
Being the kind and good-humored person she is, my wife laughed at the rather offensive inquiry and responded, "Well, since we're two women, there is no 'man.'"
And though the institution of marriage has historically been problematic for women, one way in which marriage equality really levels the playing field is that "the man" no longer has to be a compulsory part of the equation. Because of this, I was able to choose to bind myself legally to the woman I love, to create a union that is acknowledged and understood in a way that -- however unfair -- "partner" and "companion" is not.
On the same day marriage equality passed in Ireland, my parents hosted an astonishingly lovely wedding party for us at their home. I am not Irish, nor is my wife, but our wedding officiant was, and the significance was not lost on her, a significance she acknowledged during our service.
Since the ruling in Ireland, there has been a bit of conversation around how liberatory it actually is to have marriage equality. Most recently, Feminist Current published a piece arguing that marriage equality was fundamentally unimportant given the state of women's rights the world over, especially in Ireland.
Similarly, some of my friends -- both straight and gay -- have argued that the institution is too heteronormative, asking, "Of all the things we could be fighting for, why are we fighting for this?"
Neither observation -- that marriage equality does little for women's liberation, that marriage itself is a heteronormative institution -- is entirely without merit, but as our officiant observed, "Lesbians have been denied access to the privilege of state marriage based on our sex" -- and in this way, marriage equality undoes one little piece of sex discrimination, and enshrines, into law, woman-only space. Which is, as far as I'm concerned, rather feminist.
When I hear liberal-leaning heterosexuals, especially, debase the significance of marriage equality, reducing it to nothing more than "the government deciding which relationships are legitimate or not," I can't help but bristle; because as a lesbian I spent many years having my relationships regarded, by the heterosexual majority, as illegitimate, less than, and "peculiar." I have dutifully, and gladly, gone to countless heterosexual marriages to support and celebrate with my friends and family, knowing that this may never be a possibility for me.
Then again, I never planned to get married. Frankly, when I was single, I was happily so. Marriage, I felt (and still feel) was not necessarily for everyone, and perhaps a little antiquated, but nevertheless should be afforded to all couples who want it.
Then, in my late thirties, I met my wife, Sarah.
Between us, we had nearly 80 combined years of living; for me that included a cancer diagnosis in my early thirties which put the brevity of life in very clear and stark terms and enabled me to be more decisive -- the belief in "more time" was little more than a baseless speculation.
Marriage made sense for Sarah and me. We were not kids acting on some giddy impulse, but two fully-formed, highly educated, adults who recognized that though we could certainly commit to one another without any government contract, marriage would afford us some very important advantages as a couple -- and I'm not talking about tax breaks, because honestly, no one gets married for tax breaks.
Like it or not, when I say Sarah is my "wife," that carries a meaning that "partner" does not. When I say Sarah is my wife, people understand, implicitly, that she is someone I have chosen to make family. That we are married means that if I get sick, my aging parents don't have more say in my health care than the woman with whom I've chosen to spend the rest of my life. Marriage means that anything we jointly own -- be it property, be it money, be it dishware or a dog -- we own jointly and that cannot be undone should something happen to either one of us. Marriage means that our commitment to one another is seen, and respected, and legally binding.
When Sarah and I married in the Flagstaff courthouse, flanked by paid witnesses, what we were doing was agreeing to join our lives, to make of our distinctly different selves a single unit; we were taking advantage of our long overdue chance, as lesbians, to make this choice.
I can tell you that when I was repeating my vows to Sarah, before the judge, I wasn't playing "political activist" any more than my parents were when they said their vows in a Catholic church 45 years prior. I was under no illusion that our ability to marry was going to "fix" the myriad of hideous problems women face. Rather, I was thinking about the person across from me. I was thinking of the woman I loved, and the life I wanted to build with her. If anything other than Sarah occurred to me that day, it was the countless women like us who had committed their lives to each other, but were denied the legal protections of marriage. Or of the countless women who were, and still are, forced into marriages to men who see them as little more than chattel. Or the lesbians who married good, well-intentioned men because they were "supposed to," because there was simply no other conceivable way to live.
Despite what some on the left, and many on the right may assert, the fight for marriage equality is not some frivolous, dismissable cause meant to distract us all from the "real issues" at hand. For instance, one would never suggest that campaigns to end world hunger are a distraction from the AIDS epidemic. That argument would be both insulting and laughable, as should be the argument that marriage equality somehow detracts from issues pertinent to women or any other marginalized group. This is, at best, a specious claim.
Over 60 people packed my parents' home on our wedding day. This count included friends and family of all ages, sexual orientations, religious/political convictions, and marital statuses. This count included children, one of whom, at four, marveled at what she called a "two lady wedding." (This count also included two middle-aged adults who were offended by the ceremony and left, because apparently they didn't realize it was a gay wedding... or something... but that's a story for another time.) There were tears, laughter, lots of hugs, and envelopes full of cash (making me feel a bit like Karen in the wedding scene from Goodfellas). There was cake and revelry. But most of all, there was love. Lots of it. Uncomplicated, sincere love.
And as our mohawked officiant noted, this show of acceptance and respect for my relationship with Sarah would not have happened 20 years ago. People come around, sure. People came around to their gay daughters and sons and nieces and nephews long before the fight for marriage equality was in the public eye, but there's no denying the effort to gain marriage rights for gays and lesbians has helped. Whether or not a gay or lesbian couple wishes to marry, I think I can safely assert that the movement for marriage equality has allowed those couples a degree of acceptance that simply did not exist even a decade ago. I think I can safely argue that the fight for marriage equality has resulted in the general public (those with votes, those with legislative ability) to view lesbian and gay relationships as valid, meaningful, and significant. And this is absolutely important.
And there is no man. As Justice Ginsberg pointed out during the most recent hearings on marriage equality, the institution has evolved quite remarkably over time. One need look no further than my marriage to Sarah to see that. The day-to-day labor of living is not divided, for us, along gender lines. While I wore a suit to our wedding, I am still the one who does all the cooking. Sarah may get excited about dresses and samples from Sephora, but she's also the one who deals with the spiders. As women, the economic deck is stacked against us, and no one is holding the purse strings -- we share the financial resources we have, when we have them. Marriage, for us, is certainly not what it was for our grandmothers, and we're both glad of that.
And no, our marriage doesn't help the fact that women still lack access to abortion in Ireland. Nor does our marriage resolve the wage gap, abate misogyny, or prevent awful legislation that strips women of bodily autonomy. As feminists, both, we're painfully cognizant of these issues. But while the conversation around marriage equality may be relegated to the political sphere, our decision to marry wasn't about politics, or statement-making. We married for the same reasons many, many people before us have married: we love one another, we are committed to one another, and we wanted to make a serious promise to one another before our families, friends, and the law. And no that's nothing new, nothing radical, but as lesbians, to have our relationship not regarded as "second class," to look at Sarah, the person I love most, and know that she is, legally, my family, my kin, my spouse? That's really powerful.
Absolutely no one has been harmed in the making of this marriage.
No, you don't have to celebrate it, or want it for yourself. And no, marriage is not a revolutionary act. Rather, it is a sacrament, a ritual, an institution that is present in virtually every culture. Marriage is not novel or radical, nor has the fight for marriage equality ever really been about revolution; instead, it's been about ensuring that committed couples, who desire the bond and security provided by marriage, may have a chance at it, regardless of their sexual orientation. It's been about lesbian couples, like Sarah and I, having the legal protections that so many lesbian couples before us did not have. It's not a revolution nor does it represent some great seismic shift in women's rights, but it does mean that my best friend, my favorite person, my greatest love, and I are legally entitled to take care of one another, benefit from each other's financial gains, and that no one outside of our relationship -- whether bigoted, well-intentioned, or simply misguided -- can undo the promises we have made to one another, can reconfigure our intent, can alter the definition of our relationship. And that, I think, is important enough.
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