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In Washington area, gays' new right stirs up old conflicts

By Tara Bahrampour and Monica Hesse
Saturday, March 13, 2010; B01

On the first day same-sex weddings were held in the District, Dustin Rhodes could barely stomach the outpouring of matrimonial enthusiasm: the joyful couples exchanging vows in front of family, friends and colleagues, with all the flowers, cake and flash photography that come with the show.

"It's so personally revolting to me," said Rhodes, 36, who has been in a committed relationship with a man for 13 years.

"I'd rather see marriage abolished than see me married," he said as he ate lunch in a Columbia Heights cafe with his partner, Bray Creech. "The materialism of it, what I perceive as kind of a narcissism. Like all the money and decoration. . . . I have no interest in having a performance, which to me is what weddings are."

Creech, 33, got a faraway look on his face. "I would do it," he said, with a little smile of resignation that comes with years of losing the same argument. "You get all those gifts; that would be so nice. I have no problem with the performance part of it."

Many same-sex couples who rushed to make history this week by marrying in the District cited reasons such as spousal benefits, inheritance and hospital visitation rights, and greater societal legitimacy. But for some couples, the option to legally marry has raised a thorny issue -- to wed or not -- that had long remained safely in the realm of the hypothetical. For those who can't agree on whether to tie the knot, the new horizons have stirred up old conflicts.

"You don't know to wish for something when it's so far off," said a 45-year-old lesbian in Frederick, who did not want to be named out of concern for the effect it could have on her employer. She would like to marry, but her partner of 13 years doesn't want to.

Evaluating priorities

In the past, getting married "wasn't in the global gay conversation, but all of a sudden it comes home," she said. "Little by little, it becomes closer: First you can go to Denmark to get married; then you can go to Canada; then you can go to Vermont. And now all of a sudden you can go to D.C." and have the marriage recognized in Maryland. "So all of a sudden, this pie in the sky became a choice for us, and having a choice, you have to evaluate your priorities, and the closer it came, the more we've been talking about it."

A number of other couples they know are having the same argument, she added.

As with heterosexual couples, the reasons for one same-sex partner balking are myriad. Some simply aren't ready to commit; others refuse to consider marrying until the right is extended nationwide and includes federal benefits. Some say that although they committed to their partners long ago in their hearts, they oppose the idea of marriage as an institution -- especially because it is one that so often collapses.

"I'm not against gay marriage in any way, shape or form, but having been married before, I think you legitimately have concerns about the failure of marriage in general for the majority of people," said Nash Blain, 43, a lawyer in Harpers Ferry, W.Va., who was married to a man for eight years before she and Marla Seymour, 57, a bookseller, got together 13 years ago.

Blain said she can think of few happy marriages, and she still chafes at the memory of receiving letters addressed to "Mr. and Mrs." followed by her husband's name. "I think it's very hard not to have some diminishment of each person occur."

An outdated norm?

Why, some wonder, would anyone want to fit into that cracked mold?

"There's a whole segment of the [gay] community for whom the marriage equality bit seems way too heteronormative," mimicking conventional heterosexual practices, said Suzanne Scott, director of women and gender studies at George Mason University. "Some would even argue that marriage is an outdated norm based on archaic rules."

Like immigrants who once sought to become Americanized and now embrace their ethnic roots, Scott said, many gays and lesbians embrace their differentness but also feel torn because they value the benefits that come with marriage.

Practical considerations

Some of the considerations are practical. Creech, an accountant, who shares a home and dogs with Rhodes in Adams Morgan, said that after years of arguing, he has largely given up on his dream of a wedding. Still, "my biggest fear is the hospital thing -- that he would be in the hospital hurt, and I wouldn't be able to see him. That terrifies me."

But some also yearn for the less tangible benefits.

"Marriage for me presents an opportunity for approval, social approval," said the Frederick woman, who has never married but whose 54-year-old partner lost faith in the institution after a heterosexual marriage. "And I shouldn't care after all I've been through, but I do, I do care. I'm tired of being marginalized."

Seymour, in Harpers Ferry, has always been attracted to women and long thought a wedding would not be an option for her. "To stand up and say, 'This is my partner, this is my love,' " she said. "I always felt a lack because I wasn't able to do that."

She and Blain argued for years about whether to marry, and in 2005, Blain gave in -- "I recognized how really important it was to Marla" -- and the two wed in Canada. ("I was unable to complete the vows because I was weeping," Seymour recalled.)

Rob Williams, a licensed social worker in the District, said that although most same-sex couples he works with are in agreement over whether to marry, couples who came of age at different times tend to disagree more over it.

"The younger partner is often much more eager to get married, whereas older gay people are much more wary of what's going on," he said. "They've lived through the time when it was illegal to make love to your partner. . . . They had to create their own structure, their own environment that they value. So it's hard to just turn on a dime, so to speak, and all of a sudden embrace that culture that devalued us."

Balance

Other couples in successful long-term relationships might balk at marrying because they don't want to upset their balance, said Mark Forrest, a licensed social worker in Boston, where same-sex marriage has been legal since 2004. "They may have gotten into a routine with each other and never expected this to come up, and it may be too disturbing" to introduce a new dynamic.

Some wonder whether legalizing a long-term union could poison a relationship.

"Somebody said to me, 'Now are you going to get married?' " Rhodes said. "And I'm like, 'No, why would I want to ruin a good thing?' " Noting that his father was married six times and his mother three, he said, "I often wonder if our relationship [works] because we're not married."

Blain, who shares a book-filled house with Seymour, said their Canadian wedding has not destabilized their relationship as she once feared.

Still, she continues to oppose the idea of marrying again locally, and the couple's argument continues to simmer.

"Given the choice, Marla would prefer that we have a ceremony" here, Blain said, adding, "I will decline to do that."

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