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A Trip Abroad Reveals How Far We've Come on Gay Marriage

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After the three flights, four airports, and more than 16 hours of travel time required to get us home from Lithuania, Wayne was sleepwalking his way through the customs line at JFK. I, on the other hand, was quietly freaking out.

Okay, not so quietly. As I often do when I'm nervous, I was talking a mile a minute. And there was plenty to comment on: the line so long that it extended up the stairway back into the main terminal, the bare-bones crew of customs agents facing a constant stream of new arrivals, the belligerent travelers shouting out complaints at anyone in a uniform.

Nervous about our own turn at the glassed-in passport kiosk, I didn't mind these delays. Not that we were doing anything wrong. I made sure we had filled out the customs declaration form to the letter, adding at the last minute a watch I remembered I had bought in Helsinki Airport -- just to be on the safe side.

Hours before, when a Finnair flight attendant handed us those familiar blue forms, we realized that this was our first international trip since the Supreme Court ordered in June the federal government to recognize same-sex marriages. We no longer had to complete separate forms. For the first time, we could simply check the box that we were traveling as a family.

Might not seem like a big deal, but for us it couldn't have felt like more of a game-changer. We were married three years ago, and since then our once- or twice-a-year international trips have been encouraging. In most European or South American countries we sail through customs together, just like any other couple. Even in Finland, where a voter initiative is forcing a reluctant parliament to finally consider same-sex marriage, the customs agent didn't give us a second glance.

The nicest surprise was three years ago in Malta, during a long-planned getaway that morphed into a honeymoon. In this speck off the coast of Sicily, where even civil unions are considered too big a step for the Roman Catholic population, the gruff-looking man at the customs counter glanced up, asked if we were together, and nonchalantly waved us through.

The trip home, however, was always a letdown. On the customs form, being forced to write a zero in the box labeled "Number of Family members traveling with you" was nothing short of humiliating. Even the unnecessary capitalization of "family" seemed to emphasize that our government considered us strangers.

Now, since June, things have changed. But change comes slowly, as I learned in July when I babysat for the daughter of some close friends so they could celebrate their anniversary in Montreal. Going through customs in Washington, D.C., the two women encountered an agent who questioned how they knew each other. "We're married," they replied, unintentionally starting a standoff that they eventually won. They laughed it off later, but their story stuck with me.

Which is part of the reason why I was apprehensive at JFK when we finally approached the customs counter. Wayne is braver than me. As tired as he was, he was ready for a fight. So what if an agent questioned us, or told us to go back and fill out separate forms? Setting him straight, he said, would make it easier for other couples down the line. Damn, I wish I were more like that.

There wasn't a fight. When the agent asked how we were related, Wayne said, "We're married." She nodded, then went back to her work. She was chattier than you'd expect -- not about us, but about the federal government's budget battles, which meant no overtime pay for agents to handle the crowds. We didn't warrant a second thought. That's progress, right?

Every gay couple figures this out pretty quickly that getting married doesn't automatically change everything. Laws are different everywhere, even in the Northeast. I always feel a twinge whenever we drive from New York City to our weekend place in the Catskills, because we have to pass through New Jersey. "Oops, not married," I'll often joke when we emerge from the Lincoln Tunnel into New Jersey, even though it no longer elicits even a smile from Wayne. One we're back in New York, I always feel better when I say, "Married again."

Things will change in New Jersey, probably sooner than later because of a court ruling last week that the state must allow same-sex marriages. But beyond are 31 states whose state constitutions ban recognition of same-sex marriage, even in light of the Supreme Court's ruling. Flying home to visit my folks in Florida, I'm constantly aware that the state constitution insists that our marriage is not "valid or recognized." This is a state where a woman whose same-sex partner was dying in a Miami hospital was denied visitation by a social worker who informed her that she was in an "anti-gay city in an anti-gay state."

It's not an isolated incident: We know of a man in New York who had to spend precious time gathering his paperwork as his partner lay stricken in a hospital. At least he had legal rights -- the woman in Florida sued, but the court dismissed her case, saying that state statutes provided her with "no relief."

I remind Wayne that we need to keep a copy of our marriage certificate with us, especially when we're traveling. It seems a little crazy to me. I doubt my parents could even find a copy of theirs, let alone ever having to use it to prove they are legally wed. And my sister just has to mention that's she's married for the doors to open. We need to have a back-up plan.

Things are changing, sometimes at a pace that leaves me breathless. Not just New Jersey: Add Hawaii, Colorado, and New Mexico to the list. There are even lawsuits to overturn anti-gay laws in such unlikely places as Mississippi and West Virginia.

In the meantime, we're in this odd place where whether Wayne and I are married depends on where we are at the moment. I do breathe a little easier now that if that place happens to be in front of a customs agent, it's no longer a question.