Ambivalence at the Altar
by Arlene Stein
Cross-posted from Arlene Stein’s blog.
Last week, the man who washed my hair in a beauty parlor –he was perhaps 30– nonchalantly referred to the person he shares a home with as his “husband.” That term, along with “wife” and “fiance” are rolling off the tongues of more and more people I encounter, suggesting that “girlfriend,” “boyfriend,” and “partner” or “lover,” may soon be quaint reminders of an age before gays and lesbians could marry.
I’ve been thinking a lot about marriage–and the fact that I’m not really the marrying kind, even if long-term monogamy seems to suit me fairly well. I was domestically partnered for over 20 years, and am the nonbiological mother of a 15 year old. I’m no radical queer, at least in relation to the broad contours of my life. But neither have I harbored the belief that marriage would make me more secure, respectable, or complete.
I am, in short, ambivalent about the whole thing.
The other day, at a Mother’s Day brunch with my ex, her fiance, her fiance’s ex, my current partner, and our kids (it takes a lesbian village to raise a child!) we sipped mimosas and discussed the impending wedding of my ex and her fiance, whose ring finger is now graced by a glittering diamond.
“Do you think it’s a radical act to get married?” her fiance asked me.
“No,” I replied. “It’s a liberal act.” It doesn’t exactly strike a blow against male domination, or class inequality. It does, however, open up a powerful institution to a group of people–gays and lesbians– who have been excluded from it.
For most of us the urge to be married is not about changing the world, but about gaining access to the same rights, privileges, and social affirmation that coupled, middle class people enjoy in this country. Because of the centrality of marriage in our culture –as a route to gaining decent health care, inheritance rights, and community membership– I can’t begrudge anyone for wanting that.
Even in relatively liberal parts of the country, such as the suburban New Jersey town where I lived for many years, we’re still marginalized. Several years ago, when our son was in middle school, he was asked to fill out forms that asked him for his mother’s name, his father’s name, and their respective telephone numbers. The configuration of this form assumed that all children have a mother and a father, and also that both parents share one address. There were many, many more mundane instances of a how we went unrecognized as a family.
In a soon-to-be-published volume, I’ve contributed an article, “Who’s Your Daddy?: Intimacy, Recognition, and the Queer Family Story,” about how nonrecognition and misrecognition impacts gay and lesbian parents, particularly our children–and threatens our sense of worth.
In the piece, I describe the ways many of us have improvised rituals and objects to represent our families. In my own queer family, for example, we made our son a book which tells the story of how he came to be. With the right to marry, such improvisations would no longer be necessary. It would accord many of us instant recognition, belonging and ease, furthering what some have described as the “normalization” of homosexuality.
Yet I can’t help but think about those who are left out of the wedding party– such as single people, people whose material circumstances prevent them from marrying, and couples who choose, for any number of reasons, not to do so. (I’ll write about this in future posts). That’s why, for my own part, I’ll continue to the use “girlfriend” or “partner” to describe my significant other–blurring the distinction between those who marry, and those who do not.