11/13/2013 03:04 pm ET Updated Feb 02, 2016

Life After Marriage

Hill Street Studios via Getty Images

The first time I came out was the hardest, and it was to myself.

This might be hard to understand unless you're gay, or have caught yourself in denial before. For weeks I was trapped in the purgatory between knowing and not knowing a thing I wanted desperately not to be true. What made admitting it to myself so hard was that I had to let go of the picture of my future that I'd had all my life up until that point: a wife, a house, kids.

I grew up in a liberal suburb of Chicago, down the block from a lesbian couple with two children, so I knew, even then, that living with a man was an option. But I knew, too, that even if he and I built a life together, we couldn't get married. We could throw a party and invite our friends and call it a wedding; we could have a house and children, but it wasn't quite marriage. It was almost the same, but not quite.

To come out, I had to give up on the things that made my fantasy of a straight, nuclear family attractive: It was normal. It was simple. It was what everyone else wanted to do too. When I decided for myself that it was okay to be gay, I gave up on the idea that I would live a normal life. That was enough: I would figure out how to tell other people later.

It took me two years. By then my parents had divorced, and I was a junior in high school.

Last Tuesday, the Illinois general assembly passed a bill that legalized gay marriage. It took a while for me to realize what that actually means: On June 1, and forever after, I can bring someone I love into the city clerk's office and get the same marriage license as any straight couple. In the eyes of the state of Illinois, my life is finally normal.

But I don't really care anymore.

I believe everyone deserves the rights of civil marriage. It will make my life easier: I'll be able to adopt kids with my partner and visit him in the hospital freely. Life will be easier for a lot of gay teenagers, too. They won't have to give up on being normal unless and until they want to.

But because I couldn't get married, I've questioned what marriage means to me, what it means to society and what it means as a goal for the gay rights movement. I've wondered whether I even wanted to get married -- and I do (someday). Most importantly, I've realized something I didn't understand when I was 14:

Gays and lesbians have been making lives with each other for decades, often without the legal protections of marriage, sometimes in spite of societal disapproval. The courage to love each other is what makes our relationships real, not a johnny-come-lately bureaucratic endorsement.

Government sanction doesn't make our lives normal, and normalcy doesn't make our lives real. We don't need marriage to love each other. We never did. I didn't need anyone's permission for my life to matter. I just needed my own.