06/25/2013 06:43 pm ET Updated Feb 02, 2016

Visible Family Ties

My spouse Lauren is an avid genealogist. We once traveled to Downieville, a small gold mining town in the Sierra Mountains, to research the life of her three-times great grand uncle Henry. Henry arrived from Germany in 1847, and unlike his two brothers, who stayed in the Boston area, he headed west to find his fortune in gold. He never did. He died penniless and alone in the county hospital in 1909. Lauren did discover that Henry held various jobs (bartender, saloonkeeper and miner), bought and sold property (and lost some to tax foreclosure) and died of cancer. We also know that Henry never married, although census records reveal that he lived with two different men during his time in Downieville. Who those men were to Henry remains a mystery.

Until states began to issue marriage licenses, there were no public records telling us who in our family tree -- besides us -- might have identified as gay or lesbian. Instead, we were forced to search for aunts or uncles who never married (like Henry), or for other signs that suggested we were not alone. I remember looking through old black-and-white family photographs and finding several pictures of a great aunt stretched out on a grassy slope next to another woman wearing pants and a fedora. I often wondered who that woman was, but no one could ever identify her. Her name and her significance to my great aunt are lost forever.

Even newspaper obituaries are frequently scrubbed of any reference to a relationship with a same-sex partner. When my parents died, their obituaries listed me and my nine siblings. Next to my married siblings' names were their spouses' names in parentheses. There was no name in parentheses next to mine. Lauren had been a part of our family for over a decade. She had been a witness to my family's heartbreaks and a joyful participant in our celebrations. She attended Little League games, distracted toddlers during family crises and acted as photographer-in-chief. She held me after my brother called to tell me that my mother had died, and seven months later she cried with me when we received the news of my father's death. Yet she remained hidden from public view, a painful reminder that my parents' acceptance of my relationship with Lauren was always conditioned on its invisibility. The blank space next to my name showed how easily our relationship could be denied.

On the day we were married, after the guests had left and we were alone, Lauren opened up her laptop and added my name to her family tree and her name to mine. I felt liberated by that simple act. It was the same feeling I had when I marched in my first pride parade or held hands with my first girlfriend as we walked down a public street. Our marriage was a declaration of our existence; it created a visible public tie that linked us and our families.

Recently we were scrolling through photos my family had uploaded to Facebook following a niece's wedding when Lauren received a Facebook message. My older brother had tagged her as "family." We looked at each other in delight. Lauren will not face the fate of the young woman sitting next to my great aunt in that faded photo. She has been listed on Facebook as family, an indelible digital record. And when my sister died, her two sons, who have known Lauren for almost half their lives, placed her name next to mine in the obituary.

When we talk about marriage equality, the conversation is inevitably focused on tangible rights and benefits. But we are also creating a historical record. My relationship with Lauren will not fade with memories or disappear upon our deaths. No great niece or nephew will have to wonder who Lauren is or what significance she had in my life. One hundred years from now, when we are both gone, there will still be a marriage license in Vermont that bears our names and the names of our parents. We will be visible to the next generation and every generation that follows.