So I have a friend whose girlfriend is pressuring him to get hitched.
I had an easy solution for him: Get "gay married" instead.
It's got all the notions of commitment and buckets of earnestness, but has zero legal implications. In fact, scads of state governments and courts across this country have even passed laws that make such a union impossible. Thus, he could get none of the benefits of marriage, but also none of its legal complications and, of course, a whole lot of credit for trying.
That's unless he decides to move to Massachusetts, the only state where one can actually get gay married. And now, apparently, the Garden State, after the New Jersey Supreme Court unanimously ruled last week that under the state's constitution legislators must extend the same legal rights related to matrimony to same-sex couples as those given to straight ones. While three justices wanted the politicians to call it marriage, the other four agreed that they could call whatever they come up with whatever they want.
As if. Because while legislators may select some non-descript term, like civil unions, everyone else is going to refer to it as "gay" marriage. It's one of those phrases that has taken up residence in our social issues lexicon and shows no signs of going away anytime soon. The media use it liberally--so to speak--in almost every story they report (as in: "Gay Marriage? Could it happen to you?"). The radical right, of course, trots out the term as a bugaboo to terrify their base of voters, much as one might create a monster under the bed to scare your little brother. Everyone else has just adopted it in casual conversation, much as Kleenex and Google are used in reference to sneezing and searching on the Internet.
But I knew it was a problem when I was at my 25th high school reunion a few years back and a well meaning classmate asked in a lovely but misguided effort at being inclusive, "Did you get gay married?" Actually, I said, three times to the same person: once in San Francisco in the 2004 when our mayor went nuts and gave out marriage licenses to gay folks as if they were candy; once in 2003 in Canada, which gave its gay citizens and anyone else who would drive across the border marriage rights; and once in a commitment ceremony in 1999. And because it was gay marriage, none of these unions technically counted. The San Francisco marriage was declared null and void by the courts, the Canadian one is not recognized by this country and the first was officiated by an Internet-sanctioned minister, which makes it about as unofficial as you can get.
Now, while none of the dismissals of these marriages is directly due to the phrase "gay marriage," I can't help but think that simply using the term, even as shorthand, just minimizes the effort to gain equal rights under the law that is at the heart of this debate. So, I am on a mission to get the "gay" out of gay marriage, because I am certain it is one of those ways language is used to make something freakish and less than the real thing. I also have no idea what it means.
Other than signaling the possibility of much better food and design at weddings between two gay men (I know, a cliche, but judging from the ceremonies I have attended, it's true), what gay Americans are seeking is strikingly like marriages that straight people have--complete with mortgages and dogs and kids and a suburban mentality looming in the future. Few are actually attempting to change the idea of marriage, which I think, given the depressing divorce statistics in this country, could use a few new transformative concepts to improve and strengthen it. On a deeper level too, it is not different either, but simply a way for people who are trying to make a long-term commitment to acknowledge that and to gain the important legal protections that come with it.
But, frankly, the real reason the term just bugs me is that it is hard to explain to my son Louie and will be when Alex is old enough to understand. Like a lot of children his age, Louie is quite aware of the ideas related to marriage and he seems to spend a lot of time figuring out what word and phrases are the right ones. Whether it is due to too much watching of Disney movies with all their happily-ever-afters or just a stage of childhood development, he seems to need to know exactly how people are related to each other. He always insists, for example, on calling my partner "your wife" and asks a lot about whose parents among his pre-school friends are married. In our school in San Francisco, that is a complex thing, given there are many gay families, some made up of two women, some two men and some of both gay women and men who are having kids together. And that is not including all the married and divorced straight parents.
Louie himself spends a lot of time defining his own place in this too. When he was three years old, for example, he told me he had decided to marry our babysitter's daughter Leah, whom he has adored since he was a baby. He even went as far as asking her parents if he would be her husband, which I thought was gallant, and told Leah they would have two children named "Bully" and "Handsome" (I have no idea where these unusual monikers came from, but I can't blame Disney this time).
Then this past April, he suddenly changed his tune and told me very gravely on the way home from school that he had to tell Leah he could no longer honor his nuptial promises. When I asked why, he had a simple answer: "Now, I am going to marry and be husbands with Luke and also be superheroes." Luke is his best friend and without the slightest hesitation, he had decided that he and Luke could marry and have children someday, also with the same unfortunate names. Then recently, he told me he had added in his friend Gabi to his marriage with Luke, as she was also superhero material. "She is pretty too," he noted to me. While I am hoping his fickleness will dissipate, I am incredibly heartened by both his flexibility and also his use of language without discomfort or demeaning qualifiers the rest of us seem to need.
That trend, I hope, will go away over time, although recent polls don't seem to give much evidence of that, proving that the words we choose still hold too much power. In a survey done in July by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, 56 percent of Americans said they approved of civil unions for same-sex couples, a heartening number that shows how far this country has actually come. But when asked about "gay marriage," which is essentially the exact same thing, approval plummeted to 35 percent.
As depressing as that is, here's hoping my grandchildren Bully and Handsome will be a little wiser someday, at least when it comes to words.
About this column:
Here's the thing: I fell impossibly in love with the Internet from the minute I saw it in action in the early 1990s. From that moment on, I have studied it, analyzed it, reported on it, and, mostly, have not been without it as a part of my daily life since. If truth be told, it has been one of the more gratifying relationships I have ever had--interesting, challenging, ever-changing, and always new. And yet, I work for a publication, the Wall Street Journal, whose primary business is still print (you know, dead trees), and my only other writing venue has been books (even more dead trees). Thus, in the walk-the-talk spirit reporters like me always demand of their subjects, I think it's high time that I take an ax to a stand of virtual trees in the cyberforest by publishing this online-only serial, a real-time memoir which I am calling "The Louie Chronicles." Centered on the two major Louies in my life--my father who died of a brain aneurysm when I was five years old and my four-year-old son named after him--I hope it will prove to be a good way to write about what it means to be a parent in an era of breakthroughs and backlash. Because here's the other thing: I am gay. And while that might be no big deal in San Francisco where I live and where that classic line about being gay from "Seinfeld"--"not that there's anything wrong with that"--is the de facto city motto, we all know that gay marriage, families, and parenting sits right at the center of the whole noisy and nasty debate over cultural values that has been throttling this nation senseless for much too long now. I don't imagine anything I could come up with would make things any better--you know, the if-you'd-only-get-to-know-us-you'd-love-us philosophy--but I do hope you'll enjoy my stories. And, if you don't--and here's what I really love about the Internet--relief is just one click away. And how many things in life can you say that about?
-- Kara Swisher