My mother was rolled over to me in a hospital gown with new corneas and loose lips. “When are you and AJ going to get married? It’s legal now—isn’t it?” I quickly web searched to confirm that. I had stopped caring about all that after the last elections. She sighed, “That’d be cute.” Then, “It’s like I’m in a rainbow tunnel. So many colors, like I’m at Disneyland.”
I hadn’t considered marriage before 2008. Bigotry and casual homophobia were out of the closet in the ongoing debates over California Proposition 8, and the gay community reacted in the sharpest and most active defense formation I had seen. We were in the streets, gay and proud and loud, explaining: no, yes does not support gay marriage, no does. And in the aftermath, I huddled with activists around a stage and a TV interview with George Takei to learn what we already knew. My mother told me, “Just give it time.”
In the months following, the community that had gathered didn’t have a proposition to oppose. I joined a couple lackluster, vanilla activists groups before deciding to give myself some time to consider marriage for myself.
My close friend took me up to Griffith Park and told me she was about to procreate. She had decided to use a different word for it each time she told someone.
She and her partner wanted the right to attorney, parental and visitation rights, and shared health benefits as an unwed couple. Marriage would have easily provided all these rights, but they were opposed. As a cisgender dick-and-vagina duo under the age of 62, they were ineligible for a domestic partnership (D.P.) in California—which would have afforded nearly all the same rights as marriage but without all the cultural and political baggage. Instead, they were forced to deal with piles of paperwork, confusion and countless visits to notaries. At the same time, my cis dick-and-dick duo was only eligible for a D.P. No one was getting what they wanted.
Our conversation landed on the Marriage and Future Talk during a rare vacation together. I felt, and continue to feel, that the institution is problematic in its privileging and legitimizing of certain kinds of relationships—monogamous and romantic—and not others. Why shouldn’t two or more committed, say, friends or siblings, be recognized and receive the same benefits as two people (maybe) fucking each other? Shouldn’t we all get to party? The gay community’s focus on marriage equality also silenced other urgent queer issues, such as employment and housing discrimination, homophobic and transphobic violence, homelessness, and immigration rights.
But more importantly, hadn’t I shown my commitment? Why did we need a spectacle and state approval to confirm it?
We were in maybe our third blowout when I told him, “The Anne Frank Museum closes in thirty minutes—we’re fucking going in!” Our visit was in silence—we had more than one reason. We stood under her one view of the outside world: a bit of sky and the top of a tree. We didn’t talk about marriage.
Of course AJ’s parents live at the foot of 14,179-foot volcanic mountain that is visible from 140 miles away—the tallest standalone motherfucker in the Golden State. Twice a year, he went home-home to visit them, and the 600 miles between us became increasingly painful and frustrating. For our fourth Christmas apart, I was invited to Ian and John’s holiday afterparty, two mutual friends who were also an engaged gay couple. I had been seeking queer friends to spend time with in hopes that we might share some of these complex experiences, and was glad to be invited for cocktails.
When I arrived, Ian had stumbled with two friends to the local grocery store to recharge their alcohol reserves but had become too drunk to walk back. John was too drunk to drive, and I was enlisted, without much choice, to pick up the group. No introductions and without thanks, I walked into their apartment to John’s dazed parents watching 60s psychedelia cartoons. The father glanced at me on his way from the fridge to the couch and sat back down. The couple, their friends and I huddled around a table and chatted about our Christmases before the inevitable stab: “Where’s AJ?”
His parents don’t know about me, he tried talking about his sexuality when he was younger but it didn’t work out, and it wasn’t worth the risk right now, etc. The drunken grocery shopper of the couple responded, “Then he doesn’t really love you.” I stopped drinking, looked for a laugh indicating sarcasm, friendly jesting. “Are they white? Maybe he doesn’t want to tell them because you’re Asian.” I couldn’t respond. There was mention of his John’s parents in the living room. “And I’m Mexican-American and even I came out to—.” I shouted, “And I’m fourth-generation Chinese-Japanese American and it was fucking hard to tell to them and I was lucky enough that they accepted me, but not everyone has that and what the fuck does that have to do with anything—or you?” John’s parents glanced over and returned to their laptop acid trip.
I was being verbally and personally attacked by someone who decided he understood all of the complexities of every queer relationship, and felt obligated to police them. He spoke from the privileged position of someone who was financially and emotionally able to risk fracturing familial relations, and who believed he was an authority on real love as an (openly) engaged fiancé.
But oh my god—finally: I was angry enough and had enough justifiable reason to toss a glass of red wine in someone’s fucking face. The glory, the melodrama! But I was drinking a goddamn bottle of beer. I thought about the physics of it—probably disappointing, a little squirt, mostly foam. Instead I slammed the door on my way out, proud of my defense. I walked a block away and broke down sobbing.
I had decided not to abandon ship but to bedazzle it. State-sanction, paperwork commitment was deeply important to my partner, and I was willing to make a political compromise and reap the financial and social benefits I was so conflicted by. I picked up gold bands with the help of a friend, who was casually interrogated by the jeweler staff once it was clear she wasn’t my fiancée-to-be (“When’s your turn?”). This was, of course, after they grew tired of trying to figure out what I meant by an undecided, open proposal for maybe marriage, maybe not, maybe a domestic partnership, maybe just a nice expensive gesture—why are you asking me? I stopped by a Vietnamese joint for a garlic fries picnic in remembrance of the pungent appetizer from AJ and my first date (a clear indication that we were going to fuck). I chose a spot up in Griffith Park.
He asked why we were still on a hill when it was starting to rain and we’d already finished eating. I toyed with the zipper of my backpack, box inside, and said it was just such a damn pretty view? I tossed the ring at him. It wasn’t for anything yet; I wanted us to decide what we wanted. We escaped the rain and settled on a D.P. Without recognizing it, I had convinced him to reject marriage at the same time that I was beginning to want it. For AJ, however exciting the proposal, any kind of public show of our commitment was an anxiety-inducing deadline to tell his family.
One friend screamed for about one full minute. Two others, both women, hawk-eyed the thin little band and asked if I’d eloped over the weekend. My accountant brother texted me, “There are no D.P.s in our family: no directors of photography, no double penetration, no domestic partnerships.” He sent companion links to articles about the difference between a D.P. and marriage, one of which suggested the former was less serious of a commitment because it was easier and cheaper to annul. I responded: LOL, STFU.
AJ and I navigated the various reactions of our friends and family, cautiously mentioning our concerns about privileging certain relationships, even if we were participating in it. We hoped it wouldn’t change their perspective on our relationship or who we were; we were the same as before except with health benefits, tax breaks and an excuse to party. It was part of the reason we were choosing a D.P. and why we didn’t want a ceremony. One cousin responded, “But they’ll be an open bar, right?”
Three months later, AJ re-proposed with dessert and marriage. I said yes, and thought about all the re-explaining I had to do.
An article appeared on my Facebook feed titled “Justice Kennedy’s beautiful closing paragraph on marriage will bring a tear to your eye.” My concerns about marriage as a policing of relationships was in full-blown 1950s technicolor glory:
“No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family. In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than once they were. […] Their hope is not to be condemned to live in loneliness.”
My self-loving, plural poly and unwed friends are hardly lonely—I certainly wasn’t as a happily single, casual-fucker. I am no greater a person for preferring committed two-person relationships and having the OkCupid fates drop a cute otter nerd into my life who wanted the same.
On the other end of my Facebook feed, one friend was threatening to de-friend all her rainbow-soaked profile-pictured friends who support and celebrate the Supreme Court decision—#abolishmarriage. One post explained that the marriage industry supports the exploitation of poor people everyday. Another posted a link to a 1966 Atlantic article that calls marriage a self-inflicted, antiquated ball-and-chain that will inevitably condemn couples to forced affection, divorce and traumatized children—echoes from the past of Kennedy’s dreaded “loneliness.”
I’m somewhere in-between, hearing Ashley Judd’s awful Italian accent in the 2002 film Frida. As Tina Modotti, she criticizes marriage as a hostile, oppressive political act against women, and a delusion that will ruin otherwise happy relationships:
“But when two people know that, and they decide with eyes wide open to face each other and get married anyway, then I don’t think it’s conservative or delusional. I think it’s radical and courageous and very romantic.”
And I’m humming along with the most romantic passage I’ve ever read, from Judith Butler’s 2011 article “Response: Performative Reflections on Love and Commitment” in Women’s Studies Quarterly:
“If one is committing one’s love, one is not making the commitment once, as one sometimes does in a ceremony of public proclamation. If one only commits once, then the rest of life is dedicated to honoring the commitment that one has made. But the commitment then belongs to the past, and whatever desire and love and choice were bound up with that commitment of love are also understood as historic monuments to be safeguarded at all cost. But if commitment is to be alive, that is, if it is to belong to the present, then the only commitment one can make is to commit oneself again and again. ‘I love you and I choose you again and again.’ […] That means as well that one binds oneself to the process of becoming different as circumstances demand, which means that in all repetition, there is unknowing.”
I am trying to find a balance between what I want personally and politically—between participating in and being critical of the problematic institution of marriage. Three weeks ago, AJ told his parents the triple whammy of being queer, in a five-year relationship, and engaged. There’s no telling how much the latter fact aided in his process of telling or in our families’ process of acceptance. It’s unfortunate that marriage legitimizes our relationship, but it also made it easier for us to share it with some of our more precarious relations. As my decisions and thoughts change, I continue to have conversations about what love and marriage mean to me, what I embrace, reject and am uncertain of—to which my family responds, “It’s our family’s first gay wedding!” and, “Your brother said there’d be drag queens!” At least they’re expecting something different, something queer.
S.O. is an LA-based photographer, writer, and community arts educator. S.O. is choosing to be semi-anonymous, given the complicated situation with AJ’s family and their avid googling habits (they’ve already uncovered some delightfully unflattering photos).