Published April 2010
A year and a half ago, our neighbors got married. Nothing elaborate, no reception, just low-key.
They’d been together a long time, one had teen-agers at home from an earlier marriage (supernice kids), and everybody’s schedules were busy. Still, it was exciting: One minute they were just Jeff and Steve, the guys in the house with the dormer windows, and the next—abracadabra! In less time than it takes to say, “Let’s do this before Prop. 8 passes and makes it illegal,” they were one of about 18,000 same-sex couples in California who, by virtue of timing, got to be as married as my husband and I.
Now, I know what you’re thinking: “No party? Really? Not even some free bubbly for the ’hood?” But the bigger implications should be clear to anyone who has followed the debate over same-sex marriage: Here was an opportunity to personally test the big argument against it—namely that its mere existence would wreck the institution for the rest of us.
I can’t say I’ve ever entirely gotten this theory—apparently Jeff-plus-Steve is supposed to unleash some society-toppling death ray of gay culture—but I welcomed the challenge. How many couples can say they’re so solid that they lived right across the street from a historic threat to the very notion of marriage, and survived?
Yet we’ve waited and waited and, so far, no death ray. It’s a disappointment, frankly. I figured a threat this dangerous would at least blow out the dormer windows. But a year and a half has come and gone, and nothing is different.
No wedding rings flung into the storm drain. No “man-on-dog” love (which I was sort of hoping to catch a glimpse of, since that one U.S. senator predicted with such certainty that it would happen). Not even a vague urge to move to West Hollywood or stock up on Lilith Fair tickets. Nobody’s marriages are any more or less wrecked. No one’s situation appears to have been devalued—or for that matter, improved.
With one exception: One day not long ago, Jeff’s youngest daughter shyly asked me to proofread her college application essay. She’s a bright, sweet-faced child, an athlete and honor student. “My entire life,” the essay began, “I’ve been faced with the fact that my family is different.”
She wrote of the way her father’s eyes flashed when, in the fourth grade, she asked what the boys meant when they taunted one another with “faggot.” She wrote of the low profile she tried to keep at school, fearing rejection by her classmates. She wrote of her affection for Steve, and her delight when he and her father finally were married, and of her rage during the 2008 election at the backers of Proposition 8.
“I thought marriage was supposed to be between two people who loved and cared for each other. And in all my 17 years of life, I have seen very few straight couples who are more in love than my dad and his partner.” Their example, she wrote, had taught her “the strength of love against the loudest shouters of hate.”
I used to live in San Francisco; I thought I knew what people meant when they talked about “gay culture”: the clubbing in the Castro; the way strangers there ask about your “partner”; the way families are just one of many constituencies, like renters or dog owners. I wasn’t so sure after reading that essay.
Stepping out, having a “partner,” creating a tribe that will substitute for a family—aren’t those really just aspects of being single, regardless of sexual preference? Because in our neighborhood, at least, same-sex marriage appears to have reinforced the culture that was already here—one in which kids feel safe, and families prosper, and Jeff and Steve are free to retire to their bedroom and fall asleep to “Seinfeld” reruns, just like their neighbors. Who, not to be bitter, are still waiting for that free Champagne.
Illustration by Brett Affrunti