On Gay Modern Love: The “Joy” of Marriage Was Ours, for a While


In which The Gay Recluse provides a somewhat more pessimistic alternative to this week’s Modern Love offering in The Times. Those looking for our quantitative analysis should click here.


Published: April 20, 2008

GAY marriage was never my issue — until I actually tried it. A little more than four years ago I stood in the glorious, echoing rotunda of San Francisco City Hall, looking into my partner’s eyes and vowing love forever. Little did I grasp that enthusiastically participating in this sunny rite of passage would expose me to its depressing shadow side. Then, I was naïve and optimistic; now I am learning to embrace a more comfortable, if pessimistic, view of life.

I surprised myself, getting married. I had boycotted the weddings of many straight “friends” (and ersatz political allies in our battle for equality), resenting them as one by one they chose to embrace their privilege, leaving “us” — gays and lesbians — stranded.

In the subsequent years, the gay civil rights movement steadily inched forward, securing a few legal rights for couples that varied state by state. In California, my partner and I signed a pointless domestic partnership registry in 2001, and then, a scant two years later, we were granted a whole lot of slightly less pointless benefits involving inheritance, medical issues, adoption and state taxation. Still, it seemed enough for me. I worried that the gay movement’s focus on marriage was eclipsing the ability of our “community” to ally with others on the global issues that increasingly fueled my own political passions: namely, environmental sustainability and economic justice. At the time, My fanatical attachment to illusory notions of political “change” prevented me from acknowledging — much less examining — the true longing and dissatisfaction that was already coursing through me.

But when Mayor Gavin Newsom of San Francisco started handing out wedding licenses in 2004, my partner and I succumbed to the magnetic pull of “history.” We not only joined the wedding parade of 4,000 couples streaming to City Hall, we convinced our closest friends, three lesbian couples, to make it a communal experience. Each of the other couples had been together at least 20 years; we were the babies in the bunch, having been together just 6 years. Feminists all, we chose March 8, International Women’s Day, as our wedding day. I can remember the almost nauseating giddiness I felt at the time; though inwardly I knew that nothing attached to this rite — at least with this person — would make me “happy.” This is why in my memories I appear so sadly desperate.

As a longtime social activist, I had participated in more than a few acts of civil disobedience, but I convinced myself that none had been more profound and wonderful as our wedding ceremony. There we were in that rotunda, and I found myself flashing back more than two decades to when I lived in San Francisco and City Hall was a daunting symbol of exclusion, a place of regular and rowdy protest.

I was getting married not a hundred yards from where, in 1978, the city supervisor, Harvey Milk, the first openly gay official to be elected to any substantial political office, was assassinated along with Mayor George Moscone. I was there that tragic night, weeping outside in silence with thousands of others, our candles wavering against the numbing grief. I went back when Harvey Milk’s killer got a meager seven-year sentence and our boiling rage at the injustice exploded into a riot: police cars were burned and windows shattered. I’m not sorry I did any of this – obviously, gays deserve equal treatment under the law – but I do regret participating in these events so mindlessly, to the extent that I believed any of it would ultimately effect my personal happiness. As I like to say now: resignation is almost always better than retaliation.

A “social revolution” later, my wedding day began at the Los Angeles International Airport at 6 a.m., meeting up with the other couples and our entourage of children and friends. One couple wore matching long white gowns with delicious décolletage that swept away early morning grumpiness. On the flight, our collective exuberance prompted the entire 7 a.m. commuter flight into a rousing rendition of “We’re Getting Married in the Morning.” Over the loudspeaker, the pilot congratulated “our gay friends traveling north to get married,” and we got hugs and tears from every flight attendant on our way out.

My partner and I had met seven years earlier, WNBA games – cliché but true! – and long hikes our courtship fare. She was 12 years younger and one year into her surgery residency, a self-described “domestic monog” — which should have been my first clue! — looking to settle down. I had lived alone for 11 years, never ready to commit, so I was reluctant even to live together. But she persisted, and after a couple of years I jumped in with both feet, trading up my condo for a small house to share. We acquired a calico named Pumpkin – the perfect lolcat! – and our family was complete. We both had jobs we were “passionate” about — she, her surgery residency, and I, executive director of Los Angeles’s social-justice foundation before I joined the senior staff for the new mayor, Antonio Villaraigosa.

While it lasted, I liked to tell people that our relationship paralleled the steady unfolding of gay relationship rights: we exchanged rings after that symbolic state registry sign-up, but our domestic partnership started feeling concrete the day we received a letter from California’s secretary of the state warning us if we weren’t ready for the panoply of rights and responsibilities of legal domestic partnership we should unregister by year’s end.

I was convinced that we were ready. I said things like “life is good.” Like so many couples looking for something to distract themselves from the splintering bonds of their relationship, we remodeled the house. I’m embarrassed to think that I ever said things like this, but I regularly claimed that we had built a “wonderful life” of activism, fulfilling work, poker games, Palm Springs weekends, and annual hiking trips in the Sierras. We didn’t need to watch The L Word: we lived it! In retrospect, however, our life together seems as superficial and somehow hollow – albeit in an occasionally fun and mindless sort of way – as a television show.

I think because we knew our relationship was essentially broken and didn’t want to admit it, and despite telling people that we were not sold on the all-importance of marriage equality, we nevertheless indulged in the trappings of the ceremony with all the restraint of The Real Housewives of Orange County. After the actual ceremony, we returned at midnight to our home in Los Angeles, where we found the house “magically” festooned, front and back, in wedding decorations. The “friendly elves” who had engineered this aesthetic travesty turned out to be my co-workers, who had sneaked over that day to surprise us and spread the word to our neighbors. As we approached, we saw that a white carpet had been laid up to the front door and was strewn with pink rose petals and anchored by a pile of hastily gathered gifts: Girl Scout cookies from the creepy young twins down the way, a regifted plant from the Christian woman (yuck) next door, many bouquets of cheap red roses. It was disgusting and tacky but I felt obligated to pretend otherwise.

And then what I think of as “the outpouring” really began: over the following weeks, we received hundreds of presents and cards and e-mail messages from just about every corner of our lives. My partner’s entire department of mostly male assholes surgeons sent a stereotypical but useful “lesbian” present: a generous gift certificate to Home Depot. My favorite gift came from the staff of a Korean workers’ rights group supported by the foundation I ran: two gorgeous, painted wooden ducks, a Korean tradition. We gave them a place of honor in the living room, near the elegantly framed marriage license that had come, sickeningly, on rainbow-tinted, luminescent paper. Is there anyone gay who isn’t tired of being represented by a rainbow?

This “astonishing outpouring of support” from our straight “friends” brought home the cliché that I actually believed at the time: getting married is a rite of passage into a wide circle of shared humanity. With a real wedding — not a commitment ceremony, not a domestic partnership registry — we were initiated into a miserable circle of people who automatically “affirmed our very beings.” It was a sad club we never even knew existed until we joined. While I obviously support the right of anyone to do so, in my case, as soon as I was in, I wanted out.

Not that I admitted this. WHEN, four months later, the California Supreme Court annulled the marriages, I was driving on the freeway and heard the news. I felt so sick to my stomach that I had to pull off the road. That I’d predicted this outcome made it no less heartbreaking, even if — on a personal level only — I was kind of relieved.

Our marriage by this point was a charade, even as we claimed that our domestic bliss had deepened and that things felt “different,” the bonds more “secure.” Obviously it couldn’t last. Even when something seems secure — which our marriage was decidedly not — I now believe that life’s passages as a rule will shape-shift into another, sadder one. On our three-year annulled-wedding anniversary, my partner finally announced over a fancy French dinner — I was like, couldn’t it have waited an hour? — that she was leaving me. As much has I had been wanting this to end, the reality was nevertheless overwhelming, because it stripped me of so many routines, which even when we hate them can provide a source of comfort. My world collapsed, I entered a dark tunnel, and it has taken me most of this past year to begin to emerge. It turned out to be yet another embarrassing cliché: I carried her through her residency and the establishment of her career, and now it was supposed to be my turn, but she was like “smell you later, beyotch!” The psychiatrist we consulted ridiculously called it a “change in structure of support needs.” I called it throwing me off a cliff. Of course, breakups are more complicated, but that’s how it felt. What I now realize is that on some level, I wanted to be thrown, because the sight of the rocks below is perhaps the only vision of life on which we can rely with any certainty.

By this point, the court had already dissolved our impromptu marriage and had yet to make definitive law on the issue. Even so, our hard-fought rights of domestic partnership required lawyers and legal proceedings to undo it: just like for straight people! And I am grateful for those laws, as they are meant to protect those like me who, in the end, find themselves to be the financially disadvantaged partner. I couldn’t help but note the irony that all my fighting for 30 years for gay civil rights had come down to … paperwork.

And my divorce meant I was inducted into yet another circle of (mostly) “sisterhood”: women left because we married asshole doctors before they finished their residencies. I got a call from a total stranger who had heard my story from a friend and felt compelled to call and gently lecture me in a voice mail message: How had I not known about the legendary ability of asshole surgeons to split off from their feelings?

Another “friend,” a psychologist, leaned forward over dinner and told me about a ridiculous “study” he had seen that documented the prevalence of physicians’ postresidency divorce. “It’s a commonly known syndrome in the field of couples counseling,” he told me with an apologetic smile. I wanted to stab him in the eye with my fork!

As for the big picture, the California Supreme Court recently heard arguments on the gay marriage case. It’s been four years since “magic” lit up San Francisco’s City Hall and my own life began to crumble. Despite my personal outcome, I’m still glad for that moment and what it meant; otherwise I might still be the superficial, optimistic woman I was back then. Thanks to a straight mayor’s instincts for publicity, I learned how wrong I was to have settled for near-marriage — domestic partnership. I’m crossing my fingers in the hope that California follows Massachusetts and decides to replace domestic partnership with real marriage, so that others can find their own versions of the same truth that I have.

A year has passed since I was forced to experience “the dark side” of a legally binding union. To a stranger, I would say the bright side has been its safety net — divorce equality. Obviously, I’m not unhappy to say I took my “husband” to the cleaners! With help from my friends, I was able to stay upright on the horror-ride of grief and ultimately come through “stronger” and “more whole.” More truthfully, I have embraced a certain pessimistic resignation that paradoxically enough has stirred in my soul like the sweet eye of a violet; it emerged from the stillness that follows grief.

Like many before me I’m a little wiser, a little more self-knowing, deeply chastened but more comfortable in my own skin. Thanks to those domestic partner laws, Pumpkin and I can stay in the house, and I’m beginning to think I may not remain a bitter gay divorcée forever. Resignation has never tasted so sweet.

Torie Osborn, formerly the executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, is an adviser to the mayor of Los Angeles and several foundations.

One Response to “On Gay Modern Love: The “Joy” of Marriage Was Ours, for a While”

  1. My partner & I have been together … 13 years? Which date do we date it from?

    We’re registered domestic partners. I think we are closer and treat each other better with each passing year — yet I don’t know what Forever means. And the idea of standing in front of a crowd pledging all that Forever business … unsettling! Still, when we filled out the DP paperwork in front of a notary I gave him a kiss. And it felt real good.

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