Barrie Jean Borich, the author of “Body Geographic,” teaches creative writing at DePaul University.
‘Oh, did you see that Lily Tomlin and Jane Wagner got married?” I asked Linnea, my partner of 27 years, while skimming my Twitter feed one recent morning.
“I did,” Linnea said, and we laughed, both charmed and surprised.
Tomlin, the actor and comedian, and Wagner, her professional and personal collaborator, were together 42 years before getting legally hitched in Los Angeles on New Year’s Eve — six months before same-sex marriage becomes legal in my home state, Illinois. Linnea and I see Tomlin as one of our own — we came of age when her one-woman shows, written and directed by Wagner, changed how we understood ourselves as women and feminists. But now we wonder: Do we see ourselves in their decision to legally marry?
Everyone’s seen the images of lesbian and gay couples — some already lifelong companions, some newly in love — rushing to altars in places that just a few years ago were decidedly barren plains for same-sex couples who hoped to legally wed. The pairs we don’t see — in Minnesota, in New Mexico, in New Jersey, in Illinois — are those like Linnea and me who took it upon ourselves, years ago, to marry each other with the power vested in us by our subversive community of artists, activists and neighbors. We publicly committed our lives to each other before same-sex marriage was legal because we were in love, knew we’d found “the one” and wanted our union to be recognized by our family, friends and community.
Linnea and I have always believed that our very existence challenges the traditional female roles of wife and mother. To us, marriage was a marker of historically anti-gay and anti-feminist normalcy, and so, while we’ve supported our friends’ desires and choices to marry, winning the right to do so legally has never been on our to-do list.
But now that even Lily and Jane have tied that knot, Linnea and I discuss yet again: Should we make it legal? We identify with those radical lesbians and gay men who are as suspicious of the institution as we were back in the early 1980s, when Lily and Jane became famous and beloved among their lesbian fans. Linnea and I were new lovers then — a graduate student and a poet living together in a cheap, dilapidated Minneapolis duplex, hosting huge Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners for friends who believed in remaking traditions and family expectations.
Linnea and I got together at a time when there were few out lesbian entertainers, but we’d heard through the lesbian grapevine that Tomlin and Wagner were lovers. We’d both seen Tomlin perform in the early 1980s, attending her shows before we’d met each other, each with our own gaggle of lesbian friends. Tomlin’s audience then was a mix — mainstream folks from her “Laugh-In” days as well as lesbians who ignored much of popular culture but loved their Lily.
Tomlin’s act was gloriously, if indirectly, transgressive: From her Edith Ann character in her oversize rocker, ending every monologue with the line “and that’s the truth,” to the furious teenager who can’t bear her parents’ staid discussion of cake, to Tommy Velour, who graced the stage well before the words “drag king” became part of lesbian parlance. Cultural critics have described Tomlin’s stage work as difficult to categorize, spanning theatrical boundaries, a type of performance that defied gender expectations and ideas about what “normal” looked like.
This difference felt like home to us. Though we knew no details of Tomlin and Wagner’s private life, the existence of two female artists — whose bond was intimate, intellectual, creative and not about child-rearing — was then, and is now, a model for the partnership Linnea and I made.
In 1998, to celebrate our first dozen years together, we traveled with friends to Las Vegas for an un-legal wedding, then returned home and hosted a reception in our back yard. In the 15 years since, we’ve felt married enough, proud to be united on our own terms. So even as laws shift across the country, even as we celebrate the opening of American hearts and minds that these legal changes signify, we’ve been ambivalent about getting remarried with the state’s blessing.
At one point, Tomlin seems to have felt similarly. In a 2012 interview, she said, “I was hoping the gay community would come up with a better idea than imitating heterosexual marriage.”
Every generation thinks it will remake the world in some way, but living through change is a slow experience of surprise and adjustment. The little things force us to sit up in our chairs, read the news aloud to each other and reconsider our identities. Those of us who came out in the 1970s or ’80s didn’t expect that same-sex marriage would be legal in our lifetimes. Or that we’d ever receive more invitations to gay weddings than straight ones. Years ago, I would have insisted that Tomlin and Wagner’s nuptials meant they’d retreated from the subversive role they played for lesbians and gay men in my generation. But now, too much has shifted to take such a hard line.
The definition of marriage has drastically changed, no longer belonging to heterosexuals alone. Ten years have passed since Massachusetts adopted the nation’s first same-sex-marriage law. Seventeen states plus the District of Columbia have legalized gay marriage. The highest court in the land has overturned attempts to ban it, and Virginia may soon follow.
There’s still much about marriage Linnea and I don’t like: the institution’s long history of treating women as possessions and the unjust linking of basic human rights to marital status, to name a few. Yet as laws change state by state, we’ve watched how gay men, lesbians and other conformity outlaws have changed the institution — bringing with them new forms of communication, invention, irreverence, openness, adventure and gender equality.
After 27 years together, during times of sickness and health, distance and proximity, after too many rounds of going broke and getting stable again, nothing could keep us from being married to each other. With this understanding, we know that if we decide to legally retie the knot, we’d certainly make the thing our own.