We arrived at the courthouse just before 10 a.m., after those in line for jury duty had made it through security. Once cleared, we rode the escalator down to the basement, rounded two corners and located the office at the end of the hall.
After signing in, we took a seat and waited for our names to be called. Just two of the four booths were staffed. It felt like the Department of Motor Vehicles — only people here looked a lot happier. Ahead of us were four other couples, including two men and two women.
It was a Monday morning in December, and my partner of five years and I were getting married. I dressed in my finest athleisure: black yoga pants, with pockets. He wore jeans.
A sign on the wall featuring a camera with a slash through it reminded us there would be no Instagramming the moment. Another sign hooked over a cubicle divider read “All Because Two People Fell in Love.” The “All” and “Love” were written in cursive. I tried not to cringe at the mixed fonts, let alone the inscription’s cheesiness. Potted poinsettias and golden globes dangling from the ceiling lent a festive air to an otherwise bureaucratic office. The only sound was CNN’s latest reports on Russia’s interference with the U.S. presidential election.
I thought back to the time I watched other couples try to get their own marriage licenses in 2013. I was a reporter on assignment in Mississippi documenting gay and lesbian couples’ hurdles to gaining legal recognition of their relationships, a full two years before the Supreme Court made same-sex marriages legal across the country.
The couples I was following, some of whom had been together for decades, didn’t need government validation of their love. They needed it for security — security in knowing that their children would not be yanked away in the event one of them died, in the right to visit their partner in the hospital, in getting health insurance.
And that’s what brought Gerald and me to the Moultrie Courthouse in downtown Washington five days before Christmas. I had just started a job at The Washington Post, a position that came with many perks. Health insurance for domestic partners was not one of them. Upon learning this during orientation on my first day, I texted Gerald, who was in the midst of job hunting, and proposed.
“It’s either that or go on Medicaid,” he wrote back.
Gerald and I met in the summer of 2011 at a mutual friend’s party, right after I had moved from Boston to Washington to be a national political correspondent for the Boston Globe. On our first date, we sat and talked on the rooftop at Perry’s in Adams Morgan until it closed. After just two more dates, he called to inform me that he’d canceled a trip that week to visit an ex-girlfriend in Costa Rica. Things progressed quickly from there. By October, we were vacationing in Hawaii, where I met him after his work trip to American Samoa.
Then in early December, just before I was to move to Iowa for a month to cover the 2012 presidential caucuses, I discovered I was pregnant — while on the pill.
Marriage, let alone motherhood, had never topped my list of life goals. But our decision to plunge ahead with parenthood marked a more momentous turning point for our relationship than any wedding would. When our son was born exactly one year after we met, having our names together on Langston’s birth certificate was as “official” as we felt we needed to be.
We both liked the idea of a celebration with our families and friends, but we did not want to rush to plan a wedding. Besides, I was in the middle of covering a presidential campaign. Then we were new parents. The day-to-day realities of raising our son — as well as day-care costs — soon overshadowed any desire to blow money on a wedding. Five years later, after another presidential cycle, the idea seemed even less practical, at ages 40 and 45.
I often introduced Gerald as my partner, a title he cringed at because he said it made us sound like lawyers. In some social situations, to keep explanations to a minimum, we referred to each other as husband and wife. Among friends, as boyfriend, girlfriend, compadre.
Or, sometimes, something more accurate. When the military social aide at a White House holiday party asked our names and relationship to note on a card as we lined up for photos with President Barack Obama and the first lady, I did not want to lie. I’d also had several glasses of champagne. “Baby daddy,” I replied. The man in uniform did not smile. “I’ll put down spouse,” he said, and ushered us along.
Spouse. And so he was.
Now we were having a shotgun wedding to make our union official.
When our names were called after a half-hour of waiting at the courthouse, we sat before the court clerk, who was all business despite the cheery holiday decor. We were grateful for her efficiency.
Since we did not want to wait weeks to schedule a free courthouse civil ceremony, the clerk informed us we could essentially marry ourselves. Only the District of Columbia and a few states allow a couple to officiate their own wedding.
The process was amazingly simple — much easier than obtaining a driver’s license in the District, which involves multiple forms of identification and proofs of residency, as well as an often frustrating wait, or multiple trips, to the DMV.
To get married, we simply had to show our driver’s licenses and pay $45. We decided Gerald, the one with better penmanship, would be the named officiant. We filled out a one-page form asking our names, contact information and, strangely, how many times we had previously been married and whether there was any kinship between us. (Zero and no.)
Then we were instructed to leave the courthouse premises for our wedding “ceremony.” Our chosen location would be printed on our official marriage certificate. And because there is a flicker of a romantic streak at our cores despite our unusual wedding circumstances, we decided to eschew the closest intersection at Fifth and Indiana — the most expedient location — and walk three blocks to the National Gallery of Art.
After all, we still had a few hours before we had to pick our son up from preschool. Mindful of the time, we darted through the galleries seeking a suitable location in which to self-conduct our vows. We whizzed past the van Goghs and the Rembrandts, pausing at 16th-century furniture to joke about registering for a formal dining table to complete our tiny condo.
We settled on a quiet courtyard with a fountain and sat on a marble bench. Gerald, trying to keep a straight face, asked me if I would take him to be my husband in sickness and in health. “How sick?” I asked. “Like you can’t cook for me sick?” The exercise seemed a bit silly. We didn’t even bother with rings. I’ve loved this man from the day he called me at work from the grocery store, when a rare hurricane was scheduled to hit the District soon after we had met, to ask if I would prefer buffalo spaghetti or chili. When I’m sick, he makes chicken soup from scratch and helps our son squeeze oranges on a juicer.
We had no witnesses at our succinct declarations of devotion. When a group of elementary-school kids traipsed through the courtyard on a field trip, we took it as a cue to wrap up and head back to the courthouse.
We signed in again and waited for our names to be called. Gerald, as the officiant, filled out the date and location and signed our certificate of marriage, along with a deputy clerk. After paying 10 more dollars and waiting a few more minutes, we received a certified copy. The entire process took a total of two hours; it would have been even faster had we not held our vows at the National Gallery.
“My life’s about to go in a whole different direction now,” Gerald declared.
“Yeah, you’re about to get health insurance,” I said.
“So are we official now?” Gerald asked.
The court clerk smiled. “It don’t get more official than this,” she said.
Outside the courthouse, Gerald snapped a selfie of us — our first portrait as husband and wife. After all, it’s not official until it’s Facebook official.
That evening, we shared the news with our 4-year-old as we walked him home from preschool.
“Mommy and Daddy got married today,” I said.
His answer summed up the whole exercise. “To who?”
Tracy Jan is a Post staff writer. Follow her on Twitter: @TracyJan. To comment on this story, email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit washingtonpost.com/magazine.
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