C and I sat down Sunday afternoon to address invitations. We started with our parents. C said they should be addressed, for example, "Mr. and Mrs. Scott Cheslik."
"Only if we want to really piss off my mom," I said, thinking he was kidding. C has a very dry sense of humor, and it can be hard to tell sometimes.
"But that's the way it's done on a formal invitation."
"That was the way it was done 50 years ago. There was something called the women's movement in the 70s which changed all that."
"But she took his name."
"Not his first name. When you address a married couple that way, you erase the wife's identity."
And so on. If, for some reason, you ever want to uncover all the deep-seated ways in which you and your partner are different from each other, plan a wedding.
I should take some blame for his suggestion. I've insisted that everything about our wedding adhere to tradition as much as possible, enjoying the realization that the more conventional we make it, the more subversive it becomes with a same-sex couple at its center. Invitations on fancy paper with gold edges and elegant Victorian script are more arresting, I think, when the two names are both male, than something more unconventional, more "gay," like rainbows and Comic Sans.
I want a real wedding, and I want a real marriage.
I'm starting to believe (call me a reactionary - more on that later) that one of the reasons marriage made so little sense to me all those years is because it has been so watered down, and it makes me uncomfortable to admit that much of that watering down is the effect of reforms brought about by the women's movement (changes in property ownership laws, no-fault divorce, etc.) which have been embraced because they make the institution more fair to women but also, I would argue, embraced because they make the whole thing easier (it's easy to make a commitment you know is easy to get out of) and humans are always looking for ways to avoid hard work.
The truth, though, is that I find myself at this moment terribly confused. Most of the things I've believed about marriage all my adult life (beliefs which became more and more solid as marriage became more and more applicable for homosexuals) are shifting, dissolving, turning over in my head.
To be clear, I am absolutely certain about what's happening in my own life. I haven't for a moment doubted that I want to marry C and devote the rest of my life to him and our relationship. Whenever we disagree about something or if I get exasperated with him for whatever silly reason, he says, joking, "Having second thoughts?" And I say, not joking, "Nope."
I was sure even before he was.
Though (and maybe because) he's a firm believer in the virtue of marriage, he hesitated. He didn't want our marriage to be a political statement, but one that had the same status as a heterosexual marriage, one that his family and community would celebrate and support just like any other.
Though we're probably some ways away from federal recognition of same-sex marriages, and though C and I will be "unmarried" when we visit our families in Indiana and North Carolina, where discrimination is the law, and though homosexuals getting married will never, at least for the duration of our lives, not be a political statement, New York's legalization of gay marriage last fall, and C's conservative family's outpouring of joy and support upon the news of our engagement, has been enough to sway him.
What I am uncertain about is what my change in attitude toward marriage implies more broadly, or even if it must. Well, I guess it must. The personal is political.
I am still just as critical of marriage as ever in the sense that I have been since I was about 16 and was introduced to a feminist argument against marriage by a radical librarian I worked for at an after-school job in high school, an argument that showed me that our happily-ever-after myth obscured the fact that, for many, marriage brought subjugation, invisibility, disenfranchisement, not to mention loneliness, stultifying boredom, and the expectation of strict conformity.
So when gay and lesbian activists in the 90s began agitating for "marriage equality," I couldn't imagine why we would want that when we had made so much headway already in imagining and creating a richer world of relationships, families, communities. (And let's give this some context. Andrew Sullivan's argument for same-sex marriage was the first I encountered, and it came along with his cheer-leading for the U.S. invasion of Iraq. It was hard not to see those things, as well as speaking out for the right of homosexuals to serve openly in the military, as all parts of a conservative agenda.) To my mind it was a question of liberation or inclusion and I chose liberation.
It wasn't long then before the marriage/military campaign began to obliterate so many other of our struggles, like employment nondiscrimination, education, teen homelessness and suicide, HIV prevention and treatment. And the fact remains that "marriage equality" is a deeply misleading, political phrase. Marriage equality doesn't mean that everyone is equal, it means that all married people are equally privileged. It means that if there are benefits given to married people, unmarried people aren't getting them.
Marriage is not something you just decide whether or not to do. An extraordinary confluence of events has to occur not just in one person's life but in conjunction with another person's life whom one miraculously encounters at the perfect moment when desire, means of support, temperament, strength and discipline to resist destructive temptations, selflessness enough to devote one's life to another and at the same time maintain the strength of one's own identity, all align with the couple's simple ability to communicate, forgive each other's imperfections, and get along. Getting married is not a choice. It's a miracle. And there are many, many people for whom it doesn't happen.
The argument is that marriage is an ideal. It's not just getting married that benefits society, but holding up marriage as an ideal, aspiring to marriage, cultivates the qualities that are needed for marriage but that benefit society at large: honesty, integrity, empathy, altruism, community-mindedness.
Besides the fairness issue, there's the more general question regarding freedom versus conformity. Does privileging marriage over other domestic arrangements, other types of families, limit possibility? Is it an authoritarian intrusion, an imposition of an oppressive norm into what should be personal questions (who we live with, who we have intimate relationships with)? Or does encouraging a relationship based on lifetime monogamy and a promise of unconditional love and support have the potential to create stable, healthy communities? Does it create its own kind of freedom, the freedom to be our best selves, a freedom which is engendered by the security and stability of marriage?
I don't know.
I could say something like, "Well, both can be true," and maybe so, but I am still left with the question of which attitude brings about the greater good. Which attitude allows for more freedom, more light and possibility, creativity, love? Which points toward a better way of living together as human beings? Which lets us be the best we can be and lets us encourage the best in those around us? Which allows us to take the best care of each other? As I see it, these are the important questions, and I don't know the answers. I just don't know.
I have fallen in love (a concept I have interrogated nearly to death in the past but that now seems so simple and beyond reproach) with a man for whom these questions have easy, self-evident answers.
He points to the example of his parents' long, successful marriage and his loving, supportive family that is so clearly its emanation. When I've wanted examples of "what marriage is" I've turned to Britney Spears, Newt Gingrich, "Bridezilla," the Catholic Church's hypocrisy and cynicism, divorce statistics, and the use of fairy-tale sentimentalism by corporations to turn the wedding into a nauseating consumer frenzy. I've had the same object lesson in my parents, but somehow I think I considered their rock-solid marriage and my wonderful family who have, all these years, given me a base upon which to build a creative, productive, love-filled life, an aberration. A marriage that managed to produce a greater good in spite of its being a marriage.
I can barely believe I'm saying this - 2 years ago I would have labeled this line of thought reactionary and dangerous - but I have no doubt that the best way to spend the rest of my life is in a sexually exclusive, till-death-do-us-part relationship with this man who wants the same thing and wants it with me. The vow of permanence, the no-exit of it, is what makes it desirable, what makes it even possible. I wouldn't consider it otherwise. It is what allows me to relax into its arms. It is what allows me to experience it as an opening up rather than a shutting down of possibilities. I don't have to worry when we fight what it means about our future. What it means is that we better talk it out now because forever is a long time to live with resentment caused by an argument about washing the dishes.
I am 50 years old. I have been in relationships that were beautiful and intense, that lasted years, with the most wonderful men, relationships for which I have no regrets but on the contrary have deep gratitude and appreciation, but they ended, and I have no interest in endings any more. I've said that, though I love cats and miss having them around, I don't want any more cats because I watched 4 of them die and I can't do it again. I can't do it again.
I don't want a contingent relationship, I don't want a commitment that's good until one of us falls in love with someone else or feels restless or bored or trapped, or until we "grow apart." It's a marriage. If we grow apart, we'll grow the fuck back together.
I know for a fact that my change in attitude has something to do with my age. I could not have made this commitment, I could not have felt this way, wanted this, when I was 25, or 35, or 45. I know exactly what I'm putting aside for this, and I know I'm done with it.
We decided to address the invitations, "Mr. Scott & Mrs. Sharon Cheslik", etc. Still formal, but not sexist. We didn't go with the more feminist "Ms." but opted for "Miss" and "Mrs.", not being able to come up with why it's so terrible to acknowledge a woman's marital status.
This is kind of funny: we've toyed with the idea of changing our names after we're married, but if he took my name and we were to go with the older, formal convention, we would be Mr. and Mr. Steven Cheslik-DeMeyer. In other words, I would be Mr. Steven Cheslik-DeMeyer and he would be Mr. Steven Cheslik-DeMeyer. Maybe homosexuals are not, as the charge goes, changing the definition of marriage, but we're forcing a second look and that can't be a bad thing.