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Rules of Engagement

Marriage—gay or straight—is the great emotional adventure story

The bride’s mother was all done up. She was wearing a white pantsuit with high strappy red sandals, her makeup immaculate. She was giddy, warm, and good-natured about the wind that made a quick tangle of her carefully coiffed hair as she ventured out of the car and up the beach. She took off the sandals and tucked them under her arm as she walked across the sand with her handsome, graying husband, a retired executive in short sleeves, the designated photographer. Along with a handful of other family members and friends—including me—they moved toward the water. The sun was sliding into the Pacific as the last surfers caught their last waves.

We huddled on a slight rise, a small, wind-buffeted bunch, as the marrying couple, two pretty, gym-slim women in pants and simple tops, read the vows they had written. Holding hands and silhouetted against the ocean, they spoke over the sound of the waves. The young niece and nephew of one of the women read sweet lines about love and the sea and grains of sand, the rings were exchanged, and the presiding minister pronounced them legally wed. At the word “legally” a cheer went up. The couple kissed, and then the father of the bride—or one of the brides—took pictures of all of us, a revolutionary band of sentimentalists there on the beach. We retreated to the condo the women share nearby for a celebratory meal punctuated by champagne toasts and chocolate mousse cake.

It was my first lesbian wedding, a state-certified gay marriage made possible by the California Supreme Court ruling on May 15 that homosexuals have a right to marry. I did not expect to see this in my lifetime. The terrain has been such a battlefield, the very idea that two women or two men could be lawfully wed sending shivers of prurient repulsion down many an American spine. This has been one of those hot-button topics guaranteed to rouse the right to fulminations and quippy lines about Adam and Steve. Even the more avowedly liberal have often equivocated along the lines of “Fine, they can have civil unions if they want. I just don’t see the need for legal marriage.”

I heard many such arguments, some at my own dinner table. I often participated myself, defending the idea of same-sex marriage in what, looking back, was just a knee-jerk way. I mouthed on about equality and fairness and choice, using all the predictable buzz phrases any liberal midlife woman might use. Not until I was standing on that hillock of sand watching the two women marry did I get it in the gut what the whole thing was about. After all, California has had a law endorsing domestic partnerships with virtually all the attendant rights of marriage save one: the name.

Oh, marriage. What an entanglement of egos and ambitions and hopes and money, a voluntary legal contract to love someone forever and ever. That’s what they wanted, my two women friends, to be able to make that contract. They wanted the complicated, passionate, sometimes enraging engagement that is uniquely a marriage, and, standing there, I wanted it for them. Welcome. Hang on. Good luck. There they were with all their marvelously corny weddingspeak, no different from the lines my husband and I uttered 36 years ago. We steered clear of Kahlil Gibran and read instead poems by Yeats. We pledged our troth, put rings on each other’s fingers, and sailed forth into the night, intending to be forever tethered—and, of course, blissful. It began that way, as marriages usually do. Then, oh my, the roller-coaster ride. Within three years of our nuptials my older husband lost a job running a newspaper he had started, suffered a professional humiliation, and came unglued—a breakdown, a shattering of the self. I was 25, stunned, and overwhelmed, and yet determined to see him through, us through.

Looking back, I am not sure why I was so tenacious. The only answer I have is marriage itself. I had married for life (maybe because my own parents divorced when I was five and I just didn’t want that; I had seen the toll). I had stood there and said it: in sickness and in health. My still naive, young heart meant it. On we went, with me a premature nurse to a man I adored and admired. He got treatment and got better. My writing career took off; he found new work he liked. Joy returned. There were friends and meals and bylines, his and mine. Then in my late thirties I tried to have a baby and couldn’t, one of those women who had waited too long, waited till the marriage got more solid and more soft—both—while my eggs got older and less pregnable. The inability to conceive broke my heart and made me angry. Yet again I stayed, again we went on, fighting fiercely on occasion but always repairing the love somehow—the spadework of any marriage, if it’s going to last. My husband now has the tough, niggling maladies that come with age; I return, in midlife, to my nurse role. But it’s funny to us now, the circle we have traveled, the daily, low-decibel sense of triumph.

That’s what I thought about as I watched my two friends marry: all those years and all that companionship, however sometimes contested. I am reminded of a line from the poet W.H. Auden. “Any marriage,” he once said, “happy or unhappy, is more interesting than a love affair.” That is what my gay friends—not just these two but the others who are marrying—have intuitively understood in their anger and/or despair at being kept out of the wedded ranks. Marriage is the great emotional adventure story—there is nothing like it, nothing close—and they want in.

Now, of course, they can get in, at least in California and Massachusetts. In this state the gay wedding business is going gangbusters. There are desert packages and wine country packages and beach resort packages. Type “gay weddings in California” into Google and you will turn up dozens of ads like “Palm Springs Gay Weddings—America’s Gay Oasis Invites You to Plan Your Special Day Here” or “Wed in Beautiful Mendocino. Act Fast. Before It’s Too Late.” Estimates are that the state could make as much as $684 million from gay weddings over the next three years, causing Massachusetts to ramp up its own gay and lesbian wedding commerce. You’ve got to love capitalism.

The decision has also galvanized the oppositionists. They were able to get the required 1 million signatures to put Proposition 8 on the November ballot. It would amend the state constitution to define marriage as only between a man and a woman, that old saw. But polls show that for the first time more of the state’s voters approve of allowing same-sex marriage than don’t. In short, we are living through a sea change. Credit goes to a host of folks—to the hard-core activists and to outspoken gay celebs, like Ellen DeGeneres, who recently wed her longtime girlfriend (replete with prenup, one can only imagine), and to conservative journalists like David Brooks and Andrew Sullivan who have endorsed same-sex marriage as the route to familial stability and fidelity. The New York Times Sunday Style section has also helped by including, since 2002, gay commitment or wedding announcements alongside those of straight couples. I suppose we could even give a splash of credit to Vice President Dick Cheney, whose daughter is a lesbian and who has said he does not support the Bush-endorsed idea of a constitutional ban on gay marriage. He hasn’t exactly come out for gay marriage, but what did you expect?

Most arresting are the ordinary couples who have been agitating for the right to marry and are now doing it in ceremonies small and lavish, as well as the family members who are standing up with them. That mother knocked me out that day, just so done up and so mother of the bride and so without a scintilla of anything but hope that her daughter was marrying well and marrying for keeps.

Illustration by Nick Dewar