Marriage is now on the table for Pennsylvania’s same-sex couples, and it has made all the difference.
We were only 13 when we first met, taking the bus to the Philadelphia High School for Girls. It was the beginning of our long journey to now.
The day the ban on same-sex marriage was ruled unconstitutional in Pennsylvania, I proposed. She said yes.
We’re getting married in October on what will be our 15th anniversary together. Naturally, I took to Twitter to announce my happy news. Twelve hours later the favorites and retweets were still going strong.
It feels so good to be equal.
I’ve cried a lot since the news broke about the marriage ban being overturned. The emotions were so strong, so raw–I didn’t expect them. We aren’t teenagers anymore. We’re middle-aged professionals who were girlfriends in high school, then again in college and then went our separate ways with other people. We were reunited by a mutual friend from high school after we’d both left long-term relationships. It’s a romantic story — high school sweethearts who meet again, fall in love again and marry.
All except the marrying part.
We feel married. We act married. Fifteen years is a long time to be together, especially as we’re both complicated people with intense careers and strong opinions. So, we’re already married, right? No need for that piece of paper, right?
I didn’t realize how not-married we were until getting married became real and we were suddenly officially, legally engaged.
The marriage ruling happened to coincide with the Pennsylvania mid-term primary. I always enjoy going to vote and talking to neighbors and politicos like myself. I’m a columnist for one of the local weeklies, my photo next to my byline, so people know who I am. But this time, when people came up to me to discuss recent columns or the election, I told them, “I’m getting married.”
I told everyone.
I don’t live in a gayborhood. I live in a black, working-poor neighborhood in Philadelphia populated by the people everyone says hates queers. And some do, no question. But at the polling place–an elementary school a few blocks from my house–the people in the vast gymnasium, all but two African-American, congratulated me, asked me when, told me “it’s about time.”
It was, frankly, the experience of a lifetime.
I’ve been writing about same-sex marriage — the promise of it, the fight for it — for over 20 years. My first article about it was published in Curve magazine back in 1993. “Tying the Knot or the Hangman’s Noose?” The essay was reprinted in my book Too Queer: Essays from a Radical Life.
I re-read it recently when I was writing about how Pennsylvania lesbians and gay men were in limbo because of the marriage ban here and the literal costs to us in not having the marriage option.
In the essay I described a wedding my then-partner and I had attended. I still remember it as if it were yesterday. It remains one of the most moving events I have witnessed. Our friends, a straight couple, were blissfully happy. And as I sat in that church pew watching, my partner and I the only two non-straights in the place, I was never so keenly aware of being the Other. I knew I was never going to be that person saying “I do” in front of my priest, in my church.
My essay reflects some of the bitterness I felt and also my attitude at the time about marriage equality. Why, I queried, were lesbians and gay men agitating for marriage and to serve openly in the military (Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell had just become law)? Why did we even want to be part of two of the most historically repressive institutions–marriage and the military?
I have a clear answer now to my rhetorical question of 20 years ago: because we want to be welcomed into society, because we want to share our joy with everyone else, because we want to have the conversations everyone else has–the serious commitment conversations and the frivolous what-kind-of-cake, what-sort-of-flowers conversations. I have been reporting on this issue throughout the decade since Massachusetts became the first state to legalize same-sex marriage in 2004. My partner and I had talked about going to Boston to get married then. Or to Toronto. But it seemed far and still not valid where we were.
Yet as state after state adopted marriage equality it seemed as if it would never happen in Pennsylvania. Following the historic U.S. Supreme Court ruling on DOMA (Defense of Marriage Act) last June, as I reported for The Advocate, Bruce Hanes, Register of Wills for Montgomery County in Pennsylvania, began issuing marriage licenses to lesbians and gay men.
As I reported for The Advocate last September, Hanes’ reasoning was simple: The U.S. Supreme Court had ruled on the constitutionality of same-sex marriage, so he wasn’t going to prevent lesbians and gay men from getting married. The Pennsylvania ban was, Hanes, a lawyer, said, unconstitutional.
When Hanes was handing out licenses, my partner and I talked about getting one. His office was a half hour away. But we knew it wouldn’t be legal. What would be the point? In the time since the state got an injunction against Hanes to stop him and concomitantly the state Attorney General Kathleen Kane said she would no longer uphold the ban, much to the consternation of at least half of all Pennsylvanians, nearly a dozen states have gotten marriage equality–including every state in the Northeast from Maine to Virginia. Except Pennsylvania.
We could have gone across the river to New Jersey. Or driven a half hour to Delaware. Or taken a day trip to New York. Or taken my sister, who lives in Maine, up on her offer of a Maine wedding. Or gone West and gotten married in Seattle where my nephew and a close friend live.
But it had to be here. In our own state, in our own city, in the place we grew up together, in the place we found each other again, in the place where the Declaration of Independence was signed and the Constitution ratified and the Bill of Rights adopted. It had to be here.
In overturning the law that stipulated marriage in Pennsylvania could only be between one man and one woman, Judge John E. Jones III of Federal District Court in the state capital, Harrisburg, wrote, “We are a better people than what these laws represent, and it is time to discard them into the ash heap of history.”
The lawsuit in Pennsylvania against the ban was brought by the ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union) on behalf of 11 couples, and the widow and two teenage children of one couple (her partner died before the ruling).
Unlike in other states, Judge Jones gave no sop to those against marriage equality. Instead he wrote, “By virtue of this ruling, same-sex couples who seek to marry in Pennsylvania may do so, and already married same-sex couples will be recognized as such in the Commonwealth.”
Several hours later they were lining up at Philadelphia’s City Hall, the Philadelphia Gay Men’s Chorus had formed in an impromptu concert, and the outer courtyard was thronged with several hundred lesbians, gay men and their supporters, chanting, waving placards about love and flying rainbow flags.
It was, in a word, awesome.
I didn’t think we’d get here. I dared not think we’d get here. But when it became real to me that I was, indeed, engaged to be married, I realized I was feeling something I had never felt before.
One of the things I love about social media (because there are many I dislike) is its immediacy. I tweeted about the ruling. I tweeted that I asked, she said yes and we were getting married in October.
Last month my nephew, who I adore, finally asked his long-time girlfriend to marry him. They are a perfect couple and I know they will be incredibly happy together.
The day they broke the news, he told me they were “blissed out.” She sent me a photo montage of the two of them. They were indeed “blissed out.” Photos of them smiling at each other, showing off her lovely ring, all of it seemed so foreign to me.
Was I envious? I didn’t think so. I think I was just happy for them and glad to be sharing their joy.
But I realized yesterday that this is one of the things lesbians and gay men are missing out on in being deprived of marriage and its accouterments and antecedents: We never get to experience the blissed out.
And I have to say–it’s not like anything else. For two hours yesterday I was getting wave after wave of congratulations via email and social media and it was fabulous. “When’s the date?” “Where will it be?” “What are you wearing?” “What is she wearing?” “Can I help with your dress?”
The questions came, fast and furious and as the wave of congratulatory support washed over me, as I read the tweets back to my partner later, I felt what every straight friend whose weddings I have attended over the years has felt: joy, excitement, anticipation. It isn’t like anything else. And I have waited for it literally all my life. My former partner and I didn’t have the option of marriage; it wasn’t legal anywhere in the 11 years we were together. And because it wasn’t legal, we have messy leftover problems of the house we owned together that will never be resolved.
I know there is more to marriage than this blissed out feeling I am still experiencing. One friend said, “Don’t forget the pre-nup” while another joked that marriage was where people unpacked all their baggage.
But friends who I know are through-and-through cynics were suddenly softer and more conciliatory. And everyone wanted us to be happy.
Because the one thing that’s still different for us is that people still fear same-sex marriage, are still angered by it. Some local conservatives I know got into an argument with me about the “morality” of marriage equality. “Why can’t you just have civil unions?” one guy demanded. “Because we want full equality,” I responded.
“It will never be like real marriage, no matter what you call it,” another said. Except it is. It islike real marriage because it is real marriage. When we get married now, it’s real. It’s not a commitment ceremony, although it’s a commitment. It’s not a civil union, although it has all the legal elements of one.
It’s marriage. It’s forsaking all others till death do us part.
And it’s I do. It’s those words I have wanted to say for so many years, but had been banned from saying.
So don’t let anyone tell you there’s no difference between living together and getting married, between domestic partnerships, civil unions and marriage.
There is a difference. A vital, declarative difference. And that difference is equality.
Victoria A. Brownworth is an award-winning journalist, editor and writer. She has won the NLGJA, the Keystone Award, the Lambda Literary Award and has been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. She won the 2013 Society of Professional Journalists Award for Enterprise/Investigative Reporting. She is a regular contributor to The Advocate and SheWired, a blogger for Huffington Post and a contributing editor for Curve magazine, Curve digital and Lambda Literary Review.
Her writing has appeared in the New York Times. She is the author and editor of nearly 30 books including the award-winning Coming Out of Cancer: Writings from the Lesbian Cancer Epidemic and Restricted Access: Lesbians on Disability. Her collection, From Where We Sit: Black Writers Write Black Youth won the 2012 Moonbeam Award. Follow her on Twitter: @VABVOX
This article originally appeared on SheWired.com as an op-ed and is reprinted with permission from the author.
Photo of forks: Etsy | Photo of Victoria A. Brownworth courtesy of the author
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