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“Why did you introduce me as your partner and not your husband?”
“I don’t know. I guess husband is still a word I have not gotten used to.”
The preceding dialogue occurred in our local grocery store about two months after my (I still trip over the word, even in writing), my husband and I got married. We were standing in the increasingly vertiginous canned food aisle while the Vice President of the department I worked for walked away. He seemed a bit miffed since I introduced him by his name and then said his title, Vice President.
“I’ve been sitting maybe ten feet away from Stephen for roughly seven years and he still introduces me by title,” is pretty much the gist of what the Vice President said as he turned the corner towards the section for baking supplies.
The store seemed more vertiginous than usual for apparently I’d unwittingly offended two people in less than one minute by some formal civility ingrained in my syntax.
“What would you prefer to be called?” I asked my husband.
“Husband.” He responded, stating the obvious to el-knuckle-head, while I wondered if I was now also on the boss’s banish-to-the-pit list. What was I supposed to call him: Sir Could-Make Me-Poop-Me-Pants?
“I’ll try to work on that.”
Writing this essay I recall that my husband introduced me as his husband a couple of years earlier, both before and after having hiatal hernia surgery. Before the surgery I attributed this to his nerves, and after the surgery I attributed it to the lovely medications he’d been given to float through the rest of the day on.
It is true; same sex marriage had been declared legal in our state perhaps six months prior, but DOMA was still very much in place, and although we discussed the possibility of marriage, something in my conscience was bothered by the idea of marrying when it not only remained illegal in so many states, but did not grant all the same rights which are taken as a given in heterosexual marriage.
That point in time was a learning curve for everyone who was attempting to grasp the concept of same-sex marriage. We knew well-meaning friends and acquaintances who thought having a civil partnership already granted those same heterosexual rights. We knew of at least one gay couple who did not know what DOMA was. We knew we were leery of anything where the government became involved since administrations change and policies can be dismantled. We knew that we had both grown up in a society where same-sex marriage was unheard of and could not ever be entertained as a possible reality.
We grew up in a society where we learned that to be openly gay was to most likely get us picked on and beat up, if not killed outright. We grew up with these beliefs even though there was and is a fourteen year age difference between us, my partner and me, my husband.
(Take note too of how I am not stating his name, an awkwardness I did not count on when beginning this essay. The truth is I am so used to protecting privacy, so accustomed to being prepared to suddenly have to defend, fend off, fence to the death, that to disclose my husband’s name here seems a breach in ethics.)
“What do you prefer to call each other? Partner or wife?” We asked our oldest, best friends, women who had been together more than twenty-five years, women who first had a civil ceremony (unbeknownst to their parents) while in their twenties and then, when same sex marriage became legal in Massachusetts, another official wedding.
Interestingly enough, neither one particularly liked the word wife or ever used it, preferring partner or spouse. In fact they both leaned more towards the word spouse since that was the phraseology used on most documents for insurance benefits, next of kin, etc. Even though they’d both come of age post the feminist movement of the 1970s, I asked if the word wife had some sort of diminishing connotation to it. This gave them both pause for apparently it did, wife as in house-wife, the little woman, wife as in an identity whose contours had been frozen to a role often belittled by others.
Wife. Husband. Partner. Spouse and, oh yes, Significant Other (S.O. for short), as well as Long-Time Companion…
To choose how we define ours identities grants us the power we would lack if we allow others to do the job for us, yet lacking confidence in my identity, my very right to exist, for most of my fifty years on this planet, is also exactly what has me struggling to embrace the idea that yes, I am married, I am a husband. This actually is a reality as opposed to a balloon waiting to burst.
When the Defense of Marriage Act was declared unconstitutional for many of us it felt the way an armistice must feel, or the breaking down of a Berlin Wall.
All our lives my husband and I had existed with a war against us. In our middle years to have a United States President basically proclaim it was a good thing for the country to have amendments banning same sex marriage was just one more kick in the teeth.
Survivors of unhappy past live-in relationships, my husband and I had been together at least five years before taking the leap into sharing a domicile. Prior to that time, once I knew our bond was serious and deepening, I thought of him as my partner, not my boyfriend. Boyfriend just sounded too juvenile, something relegated to Junior or Senior High. I joked that I would rather be called his main squeeze or love poppet though, oddly enough, like Walt Whitman, I would not have been opposed to thinking of him as my dear friend, as I knew he was my best friend.
While DOMA was still very much cemented, but when same sex marriage became legal in our state, if people asked us about tying the knot, my apparently baffling response was: “We’re pretty old-fashioned. We’re not sure if we want to break with the great age-old tradition of, you know, shacking up. We’ve gotten so used to and good at living in plain old sin.”
In retrospect, my husband’s patience with my attempts at witticism entitles him to canonization, for the truth was even though I’d signed petitions, donated checks, even did a video in support of same sex marriage and “against Proposition 8s wherever they might appear”, some part of me regarded the institution of marriage as exactly that, as an institution, one of those places where those declared clinically insane get put away. I wasn’t sure it was such a good idea for us to jump on the band wagon of getting married just because we could.
From the beginning of the less-than-romantic marriage-as-property, you-be-mule-to-my-plow debacle, some part of me was accustomed to thinking of marriage as a form of brain washing, a societal implant which had us chanting like zombies: Me must wed. Me need matrimony, and soon. I’d also worked hard on embracing the philosophy of living alone and liking it to, hey, I can live under the same roof with another person and not feel invaded, how about that? I guess it goes without saying I had reservations. Politically, socially, morally, I believed LGBT people should have the right to marriage but personally I was ambivalent as to whether it was right for me.
For someone who had spent years doing artwork and writing trying to explore the full spectrum of emotional experience, I had not been much of a visionary who could honestly believe same-sex marriage was going to happen. In my twenties I had even written a commercially-doomed novel where one of the main gay protagonists asks his lover why won’t they let us get married, what harm could it do? I wrote this in the 1990s not even aware that such thoughts would be considered what was to become the radical didactic of the gay agenda. I didn’t even think of this as didactic since it was a simply question friends and I would converse about when trying to figure out how not only live, but perhaps save our lives.
Unless born into a world where disease, poverty and criminal activity is part and parcel to survival, we are all fairly naive up to a certain age, still being incubated in an egg of protection, insulated against the harsh realities of the world. Though I believe this age of naïveté is becoming surpassed earlier on as the swiftness of technology in the media delivers us more news on how small and often atrocious the world can be, I can’t say that’s been my experience. My breaking through naïveté was a slow unraveling, a journey of fits and starts. It began unconsciously when I finally stopped crying and being suicidal long enough and put myself into the path of learning about gay people. Yes, I did this in search of identity but also in order to try and deal with the fact that others were such bloody bastards to me.
Perhaps this is the route of anyone born into oppression, and an unrealized one at that. Some self-preserving kernel inside at last says no, this is wrong, their cruelty is what is abhorrent, abominable. It may be according to their nature but not mine and I am glad about that. Then, I feel it is only by learning the history of what has been done against people (and continues to be done), due to their sexuality, their race, their gender, their religion et. al, that a person is able to maybe get enough strength to build a backbone against the whip. Make no mistake about it however, there were and are still many casualties to the whip and to the fear of it, along the way.
A couple of months before my husband and I decided marriage was the most reasonable and loving move for us, I remember saying to my therapist, “Gay marriage is something I thought might just happen, you know, when the world’s officially about to end, that way the homo-haters could say ‘Well, we told you the world would end if you let them cocksuckers marry, and we were right. So there!’, and us gays would go “Okay then, have it your way. Thanks for nothing!'” My therapist had a good laugh yet did not see my viewpoint as illogical.
What I still see as illogical is why in hell my husband and I had to wait so damned long in order to be able to call one another just that.
I think of people who have lived through holocausts and genocides; people who wonder how so much of the world was able to go on. I think of those who were diagnosed with HIV at the start of the AIDS pandemic and who still have survivor guilt. I think of the shell shocked that made it out of trenches trying to readjust to a society so often unaware of what soldiers witness.
Lines from a Marge Piercy poem, “Phyllis Wounded,” come to me, lines where Marge says to Phyllis something about “millions of dead women keen in our hair,” only to comfort her later with “and we will not die by our own hands.”
I know what Marge is referring to in that poem. She is referring to women dating back to a time way before the suffragettes’ right up until now. She is saying we have to stay alive, remain vigilant, and keep fighting, because of what others have gone through, because of what they are still going through.
Considering the less-than-ideal circumstance against LGBT citizens internationally, even while we continue to make strides here in the United States, I concur that for the LGBT children to come we must remain vigilant and impassioned. We must do what we can to prevent what happened to us and our ancestors from happening to them. We must identify ourselves and what we are to each other like a banner of faith in Times’ long continuum.
Stephen Mead is an Outsider multi-media artist and writer. Since the 1990s he’s been grateful to many editors for publishing his work in print zines and eventually online. He is also grateful to have managed to keep various day jobs for the Health Insurance. Currently he is resident artist/curator for The Chroma Museum, artistic renderings of LGBTQI historical figures, organizations and allies predominantly before Stonewall, The Chroma Museum, https://thestephenmeadchromamuseum.weebly.com/