My friend George* from D.C. called recently to tell me how surprised he was by his "before and after" experience of finally marrying Ali*, his partner of seven years, after the Supreme Court overturned the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) on June 26. Their experience is further evidence that formerly forbidden fruit -- in this case the rights and social benefits of marriage -- really can be the sweetest, and that finally being free to taste and savor it can change lives in unexpectedly good ways.
Technically, they could have married any time after the District of Columbia made legal same-sex marriage licenses available on March 3, 2010. As a binational couple, however, they weren't sure how it would affect Ali's student visa status.
They had fallen in love while George was working in Pakistan, and they returned to the States together so that Ali could pursue his college education. As the months passed, they lived with the uncertainty of not knowing whether Ali would be able to renew his visa or be forced to leave the country and return to Pakistan. Immigration is hard, jobs that offer visas are hard to find, and for binational same-sex couples, even in states that recognized their marriages before DOMA was struck down, citizenship for a spouse was impossible.
"We were at our rope's end," said George. "Ali was planning to go back home to reapply for a visa, not knowing if he would get it. I was looking at jobs there. I considered leaving the country so we could be together. It was a desperate point we were facing." He added, "I have paid taxes for years, contributed to this country and helped people but couldn't sponsor the person I love for a green card because we are gay."
After DOMA's fall, George and Ali went to the courthouse to get a marriage license. The room was full of gay and lesbian couples, some old, some young. They only had to fill out a few lines on a form and pick the name of a justice of the peace to perform the ceremony. That part stumped George.
Looking at the list of names, he asked the clerk, "Which of these are gay-friendly?" The man told him that everyone on the list had agreed to perform same-sex marriages.
"I was relieved and a bit amused," said George. "We called a name I chose at random, and he agreed to do the ceremony in the minimum of three days required by the law. I put his name on the paper, and we were done."
The ceremony was simple but lovely. The two men met their justice of the peace in a garden at the National Cathedral. They both wore black suits. George's mother was with them.
They had prepared a simple ceremony, adopting the ancient service that the late Yale historian John Boswell described in his book Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe. The words resonated deeply with George and his mother because they were basically the same as those of the Greek Orthodox marriage ceremony, familiar to each of them from their upbringing in the church.
In the majestic language of the Orthodox church, it said, in part:
You, O Lord and Ruler, are merciful and loving,
who created humans after your own image,
who united your holy apostles Philip and Bartholomew,
bound one unto the other not only by nature but by faith and the spirit.
As you found worthy to unite your holy martyrs Serge and Bacchus,
Blessed also are these your servants, Ali and George.
Like Harmodios and Aristogeiton,
Like Hadrian and Antinious,
Like Rumi and Shams,
Like Shah Hussain and Madho Lal,
Like Leonardo and Salai,
Like Walt Whitman and Peter Doyle,
Like Christopher Isherwood and Don Bacardi,
The servant of God Ali and servant of God George are joined together
not only by the bond of nature but by faith and by spirit
granting unto them peace and love
and oneness of mind.
"I was an old-fashioned homosexual, I guess," said George. "I really did not care about gay marriage. It was just a piece of paper. We got married to get my partner a green card." But once it happened, he said, "I learned how wrong I was. It is more than a visa and tax benefits. You finally feel acceptance and connection at a deeper level."
After George's little sister sent wedding pictures to relatives whom George had been "shy" about telling of his relationship with Ali, he said, "So many relatives sent messages of love, welcoming Ali to the family. We were both in tears."
For his part, Ali said that although he had met George's relatives many times and felt welcome, he now feels a connection that wasn't there before. "I need to really be more involved with the family now," he said. "I can't miss events like I used to."
*They did not want their real names used.