BEFORE THE LAW

A Marriage Form Will Just Be Icing On Our Cake

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By Sara Sarasohn
Sunday, June 15, 2008

BERKELEY, Calif.

I have an elaborate fantasy about the morning of my wedding day.

It will be a cool summer morning, a weekday. At breakfast, our 8-year-old, Jacob, won't complain that food is getting stuck in his brand-new braces. When Ruth, 4, puts on her own shoes, she'll get the right shoe on the right foot. Ellen will unlock the garage and arrange all our bikes in the driveway. We'll ride the five miles down to the Alameda County clerk's office. The kids will get restless waiting out in the hall. Finally, some random person in the clerk's office will be ready for us. She'll be a little bored because she has married so many other gay couples in the past few weeks. She won't care that Ellen and I are wearing shorts and T-shirts. Ellen will write a check. The clerk will fill out some forms.

That's all.

I know plenty of gay couples who are planning more elaborate weddings. They want to have a minister and a big party. They want to wear fancy clothes and invite all their friends. I want the bored Alameda County clerk. To me, the clerk and the forms she files are the most important thing about the wedding Ellen and I will have this summer. The forms are the point of this marriage.

Over the last 10 years or so, as the country has been talking about same-sex marriage, and as my relationship with Ellen has evolved, I've come around to the idea that marriage isn't one institution. Marriage is one word we use to describe a whole suite of institutions. Marriage is about money and property, love and religion, procreation and companionship. For most of history, nobody thought to distinguish between all of those different parts of marriage, because a wedding was the moment when a couple came together in all those ways. The day the priest blessed a couple, they became a single legal entity. That day, they moved into a new house together and had sex for the first time. The myriad distinct ways two people can put their lives together were rolled up in a single event.

In the past several decades, that has changed, for both straight and gay people. Couples routinely live together and have sex before marriage. Babies are born to unmarried women, mostly without scandal. Couples might buy a house together but keep separate bank accounts. A wedding, gay or straight, is not necessarily a moment of great transition so much as it is a simple marker of a years-long process.

I can't pretend to speak for the people who are against gay marriage, but I think this is part of what they mean when they say that gay marriage will unravel the whole institution. Our national conversation about gay marriage has already shown how the different elements of marriage -- legal, religious, romantic, economic, civil, procreative -- have become independent. Any couple can decide to be romantic and economic partners, living together because they are in love, without a church wedding and without ever having children. We have friends, a straight couple, who have two children and a joint mortgage but are not legally married. Now, adults have the prerogative to mix and match the various things that make a marriage in whatever way they choose. It's just that when gay people do it, it's more obvious that "marriage" has already been deconstructed. I don't think that makes the institution of marriage weaker. I think that it makes all of us who are partnered more thoughtful about how we arrange our lives because we have to make deliberate decisions about so many aspects of our relationships.

Legalizing gay marriage in California doesn't mean that every minister in the state has to perform a wedding for two men. It does point out that there are many different ways to be married, and a church only has a say in one of them. The rest is controlled by banks, extended families, peer pressure, the individuals putting their lives together, and now, in California, the county clerk.

In almost every sense of the word, Ellen and I have been married for years. We had a religious wedding in 1996, long before we had any legal ties to each other. Our cousins came from out of town to eat a tiered cake decorated with buttercream and flowers. We have a joint mortgage and family health insurance. We get invited to parties as a couple. She talks to my dad on the phone more than I do. I cooked Christmas dinner for her parents. Ellen and I already have lots of legal paperwork: wills, the kids' birth certificates with both our names (I get to be "parent one" because I was pregnant and Ellen is "parent two" because she adopted them after they were born). We have the notarized form that documents our domestic partnership.

Domestic partnership in California is as strong as it can possibly be. For the purposes of the state, we have all the legal benefits of marriage. If Ellen owes someone money, they can go after my assets. We pay state taxes as a married couple.


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