Next month, Beth and I will celebrate our seventeenth anniversary. In truth, however, we won't be doing much celebrating. For years we have set aside our anniversary for such Hallmark moments as cleaning the refrigerator or making the annual pilgrimage to the hazardous waste drop-off to dispose of our dead laptop batteries.
Don't get me wrong. We would not trade our twenty years (most of them "legal") for anything. And we fully intend and expect to spend every minute we have on this earth together, most of them engaged in activities far more romantic than cleaning refrigerators. But, we can't help but wonder, with increasing seriousness, should we, could we unmarry, for the sake of the kids?
When we were younger, so much younger than today, we vowed not to marry with the same breath with which we attested our love for each other. There were reasons of personal history (my parent's failed marriages, Beth's own first attempt), but the real reason was that the institution was denied to the people we loved most in the universe, aside from each other. When and if Michael and Stephen were allowed to get married -- or to choose not to get married -- we would revisit the issue.
Three short years later, in our first jobs as professors in colleges hundreds of miles apart, we were given incentive to change our minds. Both schools were actively considering making us a joint appointment so we could be together, but -- it was made clear to us in subtle and not-so-subtle ways -- it would likely be impossible to make such an arrangement unless we got married. Not exactly your traditional shotgun wedding, but two weeks after we received the less subtle of the messages on this score, we started making wedding plans.
From the start, therefore, the privileges -- both official and unofficial -- that came with heterosexual marriage were made clear to us, and shaken by the experience of living apart we sold our vows for a chance to live and work together once again. Our wedding itself was a paltry affair. We were too ashamed to invite our friends, using the quite honest excuse of poverty to limit the event to "family" as defined by the laws that determine who gets to visit a sick patient in the hospital. Among that family was a psychotic brother who had and would disown me many times, an estranged grandfather (who we foolishly hoped might help us out with the wedding costs) who I had seen no more than a handful of times in my life, and another brother who could not be bothered to contact Beth when she had a second trimester miscarriage.
Not in attendance, of course, were our nearest and dearest friends, our family in truth and in spirit. It was stupid. We were young. But we knew enough to be ashamed. We knew we were taking advantage of an opportunity that would not be extended to them. We knew we were exploiting the privileges of heterosexuality. Getting married did not make our love stronger, nor did attesting it to some random judge and a ragtag assortment of family and "family" make it more meaningful in any way. If anything, it cheapened it, made it vulnerable to new compromises and backroom deals. But at least, or so we told ourselves, this legal protection could be retroactively justified by the children, whose security -- both financial and social -- would be better ensured by their parents being legally married?
We have found, as it turns out, no moral cover in our children. It is for the children, in fact, that we now contemplate the possibility of unmarriage (to call it "divorce" would be an insult to that venerable institution by which heterosexuals divide their wedding presents and go their separate ways). Getting married "for the children" turns out to be the worst excuse of them all.
If, when one of our children, now on the brink of making such determinations for themselves, announces that he is gay, what do we have to say for ourselves? "We got married for you, for the insurance, so we could be together to raise you, so we could have joint legal custody, for the tax break so we could better provide for you, for any one of more than a thousand legal and political privileges that come with the institution. Sorry you won't have access to any of them yourself here in the state of Ohio, but don't you like the Xbox our joint filing privileges bought you? Don't you like that when daddy is in the hospital, mommy can take you to visit him? Aren't you comforted knowing that even though mommy and daddy haven't gotten around to making a will, inheritance will be automatic in the event of a tragedy and your future will be secure? And surely it swells you with pride when you see the barriers that dissolve, as if by magic, when mommy and daddy invoke the sacred name of husband and wife while traveling abroad, or applying for a loan?"
No, they won't. I mean, they'll understand, they'll forgive. But in the same way that the children of earlier generations "forgave" their parents -- the children of those who unthinkingly took their seats at the front of the bus, or who unquestioningly accepted that motherhood meant the end to a woman's career. They will forgive in the way we forgive those of earlier times too thoughtless, lazy or cowardly to make different choices.
Perhaps it is time, for the children, to surrender our marriage. It is something we think through, separately and together, almost every anniversary. It is something going forward we will discuss with our boys, who are ultimately the ones to lead us, precisely because they are the children and will be the ones to ultimately win these wars, as sons and daughters fought and won the civil rights battles of the past. In the meantime, our fridge really is overdue for a serious scrubbing.
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