Tuesday, June 10, 2008

I Get Marriage

Marriage has always been a bit of a mystery to me. Two people have a ceremony, file some legal papers, celebrate wildly, and move in together. Sometimes they already share a residence. Admittedly, there are benefits that follow—joint tax filing, spousal coverage of health benefits, inheritance, hospital visitation rights, and so forth. In fact, there are some 800 rights ranging from puny to huge that marriage bestows. But none of this seemed relevant to me. I never missed those benefits, don’t enjoy ceremonies or parties, and already live with the love of my life.

But now thanks to last month’s decision by the California Supreme Court, Nancy and I have decided to get married, and suddenly my former indifference has vanished.

Marriage is more than the sum of rights. It is a powerful social and legal recognition and celebration of a relationship. It is an affirmation of my basic worth as a human being. Having California rule that I have the same right to marry the person I love as my sister had to marry the person she loves brings tears to my eyes and joy to my heart.

I imagine an American woman before 1920 thinking how nice it would be to vote. She could talk herself out of its importance, though, supposing that her vote wouldn’t change anything, and besides, she had enough to do without making time to go vote in every election. But once she could legally enter the polling place, she’d realize that voting is so much more than casting a ballot. It means participation in the democratic process and being part of the greater community. It confers the responsibilities of citizenship and, tacitly, those of adulthood. Marriage is similar.

After our decision, I began to think about how our no-frills ceremony would unfold. I will be 56 years old and Nancy 62 when we exchange vows on September 3. We don’t need anyone “giving” us away, a concept that has always grated on me—that passing a woman from her father to her husband as though “the weaker sex” couldn’t stand on their own. But when I imagined my sister giving me away and Nancy’s sister giving her away (not the way it’s going to be, by the way), suddenly the tears came. It meant leaving our families to start a new family.

Well, duh. But what is obvious for young heterosexual couples who will be starting a family is not so clear for same-sex couples, especially those without children. How many times over the past decades have I been asked about my family and I’ll talk about my parents and my sister. That Nancy is my family has not sunk into my bones. Now with marriage vows and the legal sanction of our love, I feel in a way that has never been real that SHE is my family.

I’ve also had to get over downplaying the importance of celebrating our wedding. Although our elation at the legal support of our relationship has been amplified by the many calls and emails congratulating us, when my sister offered to host a reception, we said we didn’t want any sort of party. “It’s a big deal,” she protested shocked we would even consider such a thing. “People want to celebrate with you!”

The whole concept of marriage has been so alien to me, a person who could not participate in it, that I have never really understood it. Now I am beginning to comprehend that on so many levels, it is a big deal. So not only do I get to have a marriage, I am finally starting to GET marriage.

Becky Bohan