This was originally published in the June 19, 1997 edition of The Stranger.
When I called my mother to tell her that Chris and I were going to mark our five-year anniversary by having a celebration—I couldn’t bring myself to use the word “marriage” with Mom yet—there was a long pause on the other end of the line. Then my mom asked, “Are you going to get in trouble?”
It wasn’t the response I’d wanted. Perhaps foolishly, I had hoped my mom, who had accepted, then embraced my sexual orientation years ago, and who had always adored Chris, would say, “Oh I’m so happy for my girls!” (she’d been calling us “my girls” for years) the way you want the mother of the bride to do. I wanted my mother to be glad.
But there’d been stories in the news about people hassling those brave guys who were hunger-striking at the cathedral after they’d been denied permission to marry and Mom was afraid for us.
I tried to sound calm as I told her that Chris and I weren’t making a big political statement at a church or city hall, we just wanted our family and friends to come celebrate with us. By the end of the conversation, my mom was able to say she was happy for us and would try to come to Seattle for the event. But I could still hear the worry in her voice. If it wasn’t really a marriage, she wondered, what was it? She didn’t quite understand what I was proposing. In some ways I didn’t either.
For a long time I’d had very strong ideas of what I didn’t want from a marriage. I didn’t want to have to go to my spouse’s office Christmas parties, and I didn’t want her to feel obligated to come to mine. I didn’t want the tax break, or even the presents (as a 40-something lesbian who has maintained an independent household for years, I have a lot of stuff. Two of us together have a whole lot of stuff). I didn’t want to get pregnant or spend my time puttering around the house looking for drains to fix or give up my nights on the town with the boys (my butch buddies) or be expected to have dinner ready for the little lady when she got home from a hard day at the office. I certainly didn’t want or need a government or a church’s approval of my life with my lover.
But it was an important, powerful relationship Chris and I had with each other, and I wanted a powerful word to describe it. The word I ended up with was “marriage.” Chris and I talked about marriage a lot. In fact, we started talking about it just a few months into our relationship. Back then it was usually sort of a joke. Like, one of us would fix a great dinner for the other, and the other would be raving about what a fabulous cook… then somebody would say, “Will you marry me?”
Then there got to be serious times when one would tell the other something secret, then say, “Well, I guess we have to get married now.” Then there were great, amazing humbling times when we would say, “I feel like we’re married.” Saying I felt married was a kind of private shorthand, a way for me to attempt to name or describe emotions and desires for which I knew no words.
During the five years of our “courtship,” Chris and I loved and argued and giggled and wept. We adopted and raised numerous cats and buried a few of them. We went to a zillion movies and shows at clubs, and we gathered signatures and did phone banks and marched in not a few parades. We traveled to Europe and the East Coast and to our parents’ homes, and saw each other through job interviews and office spats and lost checkbooks and bad moods and the flu. We shared a home, a history, a lot of truly stupid jokes, and many excellent CDs. Privately, we thought of ourselves as married for life. What we wanted was a public ceremony to make our commitment known. We wanted to be embraced as a married couple by our family and friends.
I learned a lot more about what marriage meant to me as we planned our wedding. My annoyance that queers are not allowed “real” legal marriages soon gave way to a giddy sense of freedom. Because no laws declare how our weddings are to be conducted, we could do anything we wanted. We could ask not just a minister or judge type to marry us, but anyone we wanted. We asked two people—a witch and a Catholic Worker movement pal. One of them was queer and one of them was straight, and each were friends of both of ours and women we admired.
We met with our celebrants, as we came to call the women who would perform the wedding ceremony, several times in the months before the wedding. We talked about what we wanted, and the four of us came up with a plan for a public ritual that included the brides’ statements of gratitude to one another as well as our communities. We asked members of our blood and chosen families and communities to participate in the ceremony and reception. We said words from our two very different spiritual practices. We exchanged rings we designed and cast (with the help of a jeweler).
In the end, I felt a kind of purity about how we had to make this extra-legal wedding. The four of us were obligated only to ourselves, to our vision of how our marriage ritual would look. I’m glad my public statement of spouseship was only about spirit and mind and body and heart, and not, as a ‘real’ marriage would be, about legal and financial responsibility as well. Still, it would be nice if Chris and I didn’t have to jump through legal hurdles to make sure we have power of attorney for one another, or that if one of us dies the other won’t have to go to court to prove the primacy of her relation to the deceased. Until we pass a basic equal rights bill for queers that includes the right to marry, we’ll have to fiddle around with all of that legal nonsense on our own and hope for the best.
My mom didn’t make it to our wedding. A couple months before Chris and I were to get married, it became apparent that the cancer that had been found in my mom’s body the year before was going to kill her. As the date of our wedding got closer, and as she got closer to death, my mother seemed to find a strange new strength—not of body, but of something else. Whereas for years she had been “discreet” to her friends and neighbors about my being a lesbian, at the end of her life she celebrated my lesbianism. She fought for it.
Chris and I wanted Mom to participate in our marriage in whatever way she could. As soon as our rings were made we took them to Mom’s to exchange them in her presence. We said our vows in front of her on one of the last days she was able to get out of bed, and she embraced us. After we were wearing our rings, whenever we saw someone else—a doctor or a neighbor or a hospice worker who came over to check on her—Mom would say, “Have you see the girls’ rings! My girls are getting married!” No one was about to argue with an old lady on her deathbed. To a person, whomever it was, they congratulated me and Chris on our nuptials, and Mom on her youngest’s marriage.
At first there was a defiance in my mother’s eyes, a challenge to anyone who might say anything unkind about this marriage. But no one did. After a while, when she had told everyone, had done what she could to protect me from anyone who might tell a couple of queers they haven’t the right to marry, the look in my mother’s eyes changed. The look was pure and light and open. It was a look for only her and me and the woman I would marry. My mother was glad.