Monday, July 27, 2015

On Marriage

Yesterday marked exactly three years since I last updated this blog. I truly never thought I would touch it again, but the combination of recent feels and reminders of its existence via the 'On this Day' Facebook app has pulled me back in. I have a lot to say.

Since I last wrote here, my partner changed her name. McKinney and I had an incredible, transcendent, love-filled and memorable wedding. We took vacations. We moved. We each began challenging new jobs. We adopted our son Jax. We grew in our understanding of our place in this world. And then this past Friday, we had a legal ceremony that summed up years of ambivalence and complexity around marriage, civil rights, identity, activism, and our place in all of this.

I never questioned that I would get married. I am privileged to have three parents who have modeled all of the good that marriage can be. Marriage meant having a rock, a partner, a unit. Marriage was strength and promise and commitment and process. Marriage was work, and joy, and forever. Marriage was an agreement to wait out the tough weeks/months/years on faith that this particular bond was a lifelong journey that paid its participants in a unique and unmatched sense of connectedness, belonging and safety.

These expectations have played out in good and bad ways since I began dating. Age 20 brought my first serious relationship, a romantic mismatch based on friendship and mutual denial of gayness. Two years out from the first manifestation of my mental illness, one year out from being raped, and steeped in layers of self-loathing that are still unraveling nearly a decade later, I latched onto this companion and the finally-realized validation he brought that I was loveable, attractive, and worthy. Like so many of my friends, my college relationship was spent grasping at traces of respect and affection from someone who wouldn't, couldn't, give me the kindness I didn't know I deserved. He's not a bad person. He gave me what he wanted to, and I felt that's all I could get. Instead of leaving a relationship in which I was constantly disappointed, my solution was marriage. That would bring me the stability and security I was desperately seeking. We talked about it. We began planning out a future. And then he abruptly but wisely ended it. At the time I was devastated. In hindsight, it was a gift. As I healed and gained perspective, I was disgusted with myself for confusing desperation with commitment, and companionship with a healthy relationship. Marriage became something very unattractive then. If I had confused its place and purpose once, I would surely do it again. Even serious relationships seemed like a terrible idea. I sneered at my friends from high school who were beginning to get married and congratulated myself on wising up about the realities of the world. 

It took a couple months of dating McKinney for me to begin to understand that I hadn't, in fact, been wrong about marriage. I had been wrong about myself and wrong about him. As a healthier and more self-assured human, dating someone who perfectly balanced support and challenge and offered unconditional respect and love, the prospect of marriage returned to my consciousness not as a solution to a crappy relationship, but as an affirmation of a commitment we both had already made. Imagining a life with McKinney was natural and easy. Throughout a first year together filled with unemployment, family issues and BRCA testing, we grew into a faith that nothing could break us. The subsequent years have brought their own challenges and that faith has strengthened exponentially. I'm not sure when I knew that I would marry McKinney, but I do know that the idea felt entirely different this time around. Easy, happy, free. Inevitable.

Throughout wedding planning, I didn't hide my rage about the lack of legal recognition for our union. Beyond the obvious principles of inequality and discrimination, I was genuinely afraid to not have those protections. Yes, we have chosen to pay over $1,000 a month for a 1,000 square foot apartment in order to live in the Ann Arbor bubble and not worry about being gay bashed, fired or evicted. But those who are close to me know that one of the biggest manifestations of my anxiety disorder is my anticipation of McKinney's untimely death. Many, if not most, of the legal protections afforded to married couples involve illness and death. My fixation on this was somewhat inevitable. I felt genuinely righteous in my rejection of the idea that we needed a marriage license to be married. I also desperately wanted that marriage license.

Throughout Michigan's legal battle over same-sex marriage since early 2012, I admired McKinney's indifference to the process. Consistent with her worldview, she felt no desire whatsoever to be approved of and endorsed by the government. She of course understood the practicalities of gaining those legal protections, but never joined me on the emotional roller coaster of the legal process. So when she returned from the beach on family vacation last month to me jumping up and down about the SCOTUS decision, we were on somewhat of a different page. My excitement turned to panic quickly. Now that this was available to us, we needed to take advantage of it immediately. Peaceful and gorgeous West Michigan is extremely conservative in both politics and culture. I imagined McKinney getting into an accident during the week we were vacationing there and landing in a hospital that wouldn't let me see her, all because we had waited to get our marriage license. As intrusive thoughts tend to, this image would not leave my mind. I was fixated on driving back to Ann Arbor to get the license that day. I veiled this in other reasoning: Kristen was in town from Arizona and I wanted her to see the ceremony; I wanted to be there for the mass weddings and block party celebration; we had waited for 2.5 years and I didn't want to wait anymore. But underneath that was fear. And that fear is what has tipped my ambivalence about getting a marriage license in its favor. 

McKinney's neutral reaction to the SCOTUS decision, once I was able to come down from my panic, brought me back to a more ambivalent and nuanced space around this decision. I've been talking about the importance of marriage equality for over a decade. Now that legal marriage was an option, was it really right for us? Obtaining the license felt like an erasure of McKinney's principles, from my perspective. Even I, who had never before questioned that this is what I wanted, began to feel gross about signing on to pick up scraps of civil rights immediately after they were offered, after a fight that shouldn't have been necessary. I also felt a fair amount of dissonance about celebrating this win while watching the number of murders of trans women climb daily, and while watching the nation react to the horror of the Charleston white supremacist terrorist attack by defending the confederate flag. The marriage equality movement has been financed, publicized and won at the expense of more pressing issues like housing and employment discrimination, health disparities and violence against trans folks. Reaping the benefits and privileges of this unbalanced and unfair trajectory of LGBTQ political activism felt, and still feels, gross. There's no other word for it.

But we did it. We ultimately decided that regardless of how our new access to a marriage license is politically situated, we were unwilling to sacrifice the benefits of a legal marriage. I don't feel guilty, but I don't feel particularly celebratory either. To be honest, my announcement of our new legal status on facebook was to prevent having to continue answering questions about our plans. I'm very grateful to no longer have to worry about social security benefits and hospital visits. I'm very grateful to be coming up on my third anniversary with someone who supported my need to obtain this legal status despite her ambivalence about it. I'm grateful to no longer have to answer questions about when we're going to "get for-real married". And I'm cautiously optimistic that the white cis men at the helm of the LGBTQ political machine will fulfill their promise to put just as much energy, time and money into a more inclusive fight now that marriage equality is out of the way.

I decided to write this for several reasons. First, I'm procrastinating data analysis. Second, these thoughts have been weighing on me for weeks and I haven't felt comfortable discussing them. Third, I wonder if this blog will again become an opportunity for me to explore experiences that are more complex than is comfortable, and issues that are silenced when they should be amplified.

We'll see.