Say It: ‘Marriage Is Something to Me Now, It Didn’t Used to Be.’

Opinions from the intersection of culture and politics.

Supporters celebrate on the steps of the Supreme Court after it ruled same-sex marriage bans unconstitutional on June 26, 2015. 
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Em Bowen
June 30, 2015, 6:03 a.m.

When the Su­preme Court ruled in fa­vor of gay mar­riage, I was not in my home state of Ari­zona. I didn’t spend that night out at IBTs, the gay bar on 4th Av­en­ue in Tuc­son. I wasn’t with friends at Phoenix Pride, hap­pen­ing that same week­end. I was, like many of my peers, gone for the sum­mer. In Ari­zona, the heat can push a per­son out.

I had a friend read me the key parts of the de­cision is­sued by the Su­preme Court. It seemed fit­ting to hear it spoken, as I am on the path to an en­gage­ment my­self. There’s a ring hid­den some­where in the home I share with my love. Mar­riage is something to me now, it didn’t used to be.

It star­ted with my par­ents. My mom re­ceived her en­gage­ment ring in the mail. Her fiancé, my dad, was away at Of­ficer Can­did­ate School for the U.S. Mar­ine Corps. They got mar­ried in a church in Litch­field Park, a patch of 1960s sub­ur­bia in the con­crete-jungles of Phoenix, Ari­zona. Twenty-one years later, their di­vorce pa­pers were filed in South­ern Ari­zona’s Pima County.

My par­ents sep­ar­ated the sum­mer I left Tuc­son for Lack­land Air Force Base in San Ant­o­nio to go through ba­sic train­ing. I came back to two houses. It was like any story of di­vorce — messy, emo­tion­al, and cap­able of in­du­cing crip­pling doubt. When they fell apart, something in me gave way. I no longer could see my­self mak­ing a com­mit­ment when the po­ten­tial dis­sol­u­tion of it could be so dam­aging to every­one. Later, my mom would tell me that she got mar­ried be­cause she thought she was sup­posed to.

(Photo Cred­it: Shef Reyn­olds/SDR Pho­to­graphy)

As I ex­plored my gay iden­tity in my early 20s, I began to see mar­riage as part of a sys­tem that I didn’t want to par­ti­cip­ate in. It was an in­sti­tu­tion of the ma­jor­ity, not a thing to as­pire to. Na­tion­ally, mar­riage-equal­ity ad­voc­ates wanted more. I also wanted more. But life has a funny way of pok­ing at de­clar­at­ive state­ments. Some­times it’s a soften­ing, not a reck­on­ing that needs to hap­pen.

When my dear friend Jeremy died sud­denly in 2012, I wit­nessed the im­mense sup­port that gathered around his hus­band Ben. They had mar­ried in Cali­for­nia many years earli­er, so their pro­tec­tions un­der cur­rent law were few. They were for­tu­nate in that their com­munity and fam­ily up­held the sanc­tity of their re­la­tion­ship even when Ari­zona did not.

I con­sidered Ben’s con­di­tion of be­ing the one left be­hind, and then I un­der­stood. The title and so­cial im­plic­a­tion of mar­riage, even for all its short­falls, was a sta­bil­iz­ing struc­ture. Those who wit­nessed their re­la­tion­ship held the vis­ion of who Ben and Jeremy were to each oth­er. They helped them hon­or their com­mit­ment to stay in pro­cess, to work to be­come bet­ter to­geth­er than they were alone, and to re­mind them of the prom­ise they made, even in death.

I do not be­lieve mar­riage is the only gate­way to ac­count­ab­il­ity. I do not be­lieve it is for every­one. I do be­lieve that in those mo­ments when time falls all around you, you want to know you aren’t alone, that whatever memory you have won’t dis­ap­pear with the one you love. Mar­riage is be­ing wit­nessed, choos­ing to be seen. It is a leap of faith, one that I per­ceived as wan­ing in value.

I’ve asked strangers at air­ports and gro­cery stores what their secret is to re­main­ing mar­ried. The an­swers vary from “Nev­er go to bed angry” to “We don’t live to­geth­er any­more.” One an­swer, spoken by a lit­er­ary peer of mine that felt most whole was this: There is no secret. Mar­riage is hard work. If you choose it, you take each mo­ment and you show up. You stay for the en­tire thing, in love and in the world, aware that to be mar­ried is to ac­cept that we nev­er really ar­rive at ourselves or at our re­la­tion­ship.

The right to marry will not be­stow un­to LGB­TQ people ac­cess to a secret Eden of re­la­tion­ships or a ma­gic­al equa­tion to self-dis­cov­ery and tol­er­ance. What it has made avail­able is the op­por­tun­ity to re­dream a tra­di­tion in a way that is thought­ful, in­ten­tion­al, and in­spired.

Em Bowen is a writer and artist who lives and teaches in Tuc­son, Ari­zona.

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