I visited my grandmother in Manhattan last summer, before she knew I was gay, and before I knew I would ever tell her. She introduced me to a young male friend of hers with beachy blond hair, walking a Golden Retriever along the boardwalk on the Hudson River.
She told me later, in tired English tinged with a hearty Bulgarian accent, "I think he is a homosexual." My heart stopped before she went on. "And it doesn't matter to me. I don't care if he likes blackbirds or bluebirds. I don't care if he likes raspberries or blueberries. What do I care if he likes men or women?"
She didn't know just how badly I needed that validation, that maybe it really was all the same to some people whether you liked men or women. My newly adopted home state of Illinois certainly hasn't come that far. A year ago this June, Illinois began performing civil unions for same-sex couples. That's progress, but anyone who argues that it's "the same thing" as marriage is wrong.
Months after my visit, my 86-year-old grandmother pestered my mother on the phone about why I didn't have a boyfriend. Frustrated, Mom told her that actually, I had a girlfriend. Blackbirds and bluebirds be damned, Grandma didn't talk to me for months. Instead, she called my mother every day to agonize. "How can you accept this?" she'd repeat, not necessarily because she thought my dating a girl was wrong, but because I was rejecting the future she envisioned for me: a charming Jewish husband, throngs of children, and, most importantly, marriage.
In California same-sex couples could enter into domestic partnerships as early as 1993, before those glorious few months in 2008 when marriage equality was legal. In Connecticut, New Hampshire, Washington, D.C., Vermont, and Washington state, civil unions preceded current marriage equality laws by anywhere from three to nine years. Civil unions clearly aren't an end but a means, a stepping stone to the true equality that can only come from marriage rights.
My grandmother wanted to marry a man with green eyes, but when she met my grandfather, blue-eyed and Bulgarian like her, she decided to make an exception. I never saw them hold hands, but she shouted at the sky and wept when he died. My own parents eloped so that my mother wouldn't get deported to France when her student visa expired after grad school. They had a formal wedding a year later, officiated in two languages. Marriage is a big deal in my family. It's a big deal to me.
The state of Illinois, like many others, doesn't see the urgency for marriage equality that I do. And while civil unions are a commendable first step, they're an inherently separate institution and, therefore, as history reminds us, inherently unequal. Marital status is a factor in 1,138 federal laws, according to government memos on the Defense of Marriage Act, the law that bans federal recognition of same-sex marriages. This means married couples have 1,138 rights -- things like social security and taxation -- that are formally denied to couples in civil unions.
And while the breakdown of benefits is not to be ignored, this is about more than paperwork. The most compelling testimony for marriage equality reiterates that marriage is fundamentally about unconditional love, commitment, and loyalty. Nothing more, nothing less. In a video that went viral among the pro-marriage-equality crowd, a college student named Zach Wahls testified before the Iowa House of Representatives to support the state's marriage equality law. He speaks eloquently on being raised by two moms: "What you're voting here isn't to change us. It's not to change our families. It's to change how the law views us, how the law treats us." Banning marriage equality will not nullify love. But to say some relationships merit marriage and others don't? That's indefensible.
Of course, marriage isn't all that defines a loving, stable relationship. Some people want to get married, and some don't. Some people are happy in civil unions, cohabiting, or being single. But they make those decisions for themselves freely, independently of what others believe. I have the right to do the same. I have the right to pursue what's best for me, even if others wouldn't choose it for themselves, even if it means marrying a girl.
Three months after my mother's confession, Grandma broke the silence.
"Camille, I hear you have someone special in your life."
"I do, Grandma. I have a girlfriend."
"I know! Anne. She is studying in China, right?"
"Yeah, she is."
"Well, when she comes back, bring her with you to New York. Imagine how lucky I am: I used to have one granddaughter, and now I have two!"
A few days after I talked to my grandma, she asked if I was going to marry my girlfriend, because that's what you do when you love someone: you marry them.
She gets it. So can Illinois.