07/05/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

The Rights of Marriage, California Style

When we were children, our mothers often warned, "Be careful what you wish for, you might get it." Since the California Supreme Court made gay marriage legal, the darkness behind that sentiment is coming to fore for thousands of gay couples across the state.

Complex issues surrounding engagement, trust, love, fidelity, and family are being seriously considered by same-sex couples contemplating a matrimonial march down the aisle. For the first time, these real options are within reach for some, but the pressure of the new privilege is palpable among all long-term gay couples. The gavel has usurped pressure from family, co-workers, and society that had kept flourishing relationships hidden, hush-hush, and concealed behind closed doors. Even though the legal barriers have broken, the emotional scars of a life lived hiding in the societal backseat of love have created an emotionally tattered monster; many same-sex couples don't know how to tame the beast called marital commitment. It's a confusing prospect for couples who thought emotional security and utopia were only this judicial pen stroke away. Since June 17th, many halves of California couples who thought they were in committed partnerships woke up to find they had been little more than roommates. It's always been an age-old rite-of-passage for heterosexual young adults pining away for a long-term lover to finally pop the question. But it's not so simple -- the law may work that way, but do the heart and mind?

Even though they won't be federally recognized, thousands of pioneering, enviable and bold Californians are marching down the aisle to validate healthy, long-term partnerships. Hotels, progressive churches, flower shops, and jewelry stores are reaping the economic boon of the long awaited love law. Thousands and thousands of dedicated couples are tying the knot to experience parity with heterosexual couples; they couldn't be happier, despite the new challenges to their lives that the pact might create.

In a timely new collection of essays, Love, West Hollywood: Reflections of Los Angeles, editors Chris Freeman and James J. Berg have assembled thirty-plus tales chronicling the human experience from a same-sex point of view. While the stories are set in Los Angeles, the book shows LGBT history of the last few generations. It's a perspective filtered through prejudice, persistence, courage, anger, abuse, addiction, life and death, and love. Love, West Hollywood shows the universality of angst along with the questions and challenges of life we all face, whether black, white, rich, destitute, young or old, straight, or gay. The overwhelming supporting spine of all the stories is the universal desire for love.

In one especially moving installment, "The Love that Dared Speak its Name," Teresa DeCrescenzo pours out a loving tribute for her late partner, psychologist Betty Berzon. The story begins at a Cedars-Sinai Medical Center admissions desk in 1986 where Betty, beaten down by her battle with cancer, raises her loud voice and her figurative fist in defiance to an application that demands she list herself as single.

DeCrescenzo writes about her experience in trying to admit her life-partner into the hospital. "At the question about marital status, Betty answers, 'none of the above, I am in a domestic partnership.'" When the clerk says she will just check the box marked "single," ballsy, bawdy Berzon retorts, "you will not check the box marked single because I am NOT single." DeCrescenzo goes on reveal her lover's commitment to fighting for what is right, even as she is waiting for another bed to carry on her brutal but brave battle for her life. When the hospital system insists it's "easier" to check "single," Berzon asks "easier for whom?" Through Berzon's courage and her deep love for DeCrescenzo, she ultimately succeeded in adding a box to all California hospitals for domestic partnerships.

With the Golden State's evolutionary and long-awaited ruling, Betty Berzon's large success in adding a little box has happily been rendered redundant. Now couples of all gender mixes can share two choices. Betty Berzon died in 2006, beaten down by cancer but held in high esteem by all who knew her, loved her and are benefiting from her far-reaching, unending quest for equality, fairness and the freedom to express her love. Tesesa DeCrescenzo and all humanity should feel extremely proud.

Contributors Mark Thompson and Malcolm Boyd, who've been together for more than twenty years, each describe the importance of their intergenerational relationship. Thompson writes, "My courtship with Malcolm was as proper and measured as . . . any Jane Austen novel." The home the two men purchased in Silver Lake "remains to this day a magical island of calm in a neighborhood of rapid flux." Boyd, an Episcopal priest and long-time civil rights activist whose career began in Hollywood as a producing partner of Mary Pickford, says of his companion, "My relationship with Mark is, for me, one of the wonders of the world."

Many of the tales of this city show the obstacles to love and self-acceptance, whether it's from the point of view of two teens in the foster system whose families failed them, or from a strong black man who has faced racism and homophobia throughout his life. Daryl Keith Roach's "L.A. Incog-Negro" takes readers from his New York roots at the epicenter of modern jazz--the late drummer Max Roach is his father--to a casting session for Little House on the Prairie, where he was told "we don't do any black stories." He asked the casting director what year the show was set in, and she said, "1860." Roach replied, "They fought a whole war about us then." That kind of resilience and humor creates survivors -- and changes in the law help, but they don't solve or make up for the damage done by a lifetime of discrimination.

Love, West Hollywood highlights the human side of an inequality that is finally unraveling. We'll see what happens in California in the next six months -- the whole world is watching us. Now as Americans rethink and redefine marriage, many of us will have to reexamine our own relationships to determine just how committed we are, to decided whether marriage is right for us. We may well be getting what we wished for.

Freeman and Berg's compilation of insightful, funny, and universal stories is available here