When same sex marriage become legal via voter referendum in my state, I’d been with my girlfriend for around 14 years. We decided after a few months of dating, that our relationship was a lifetime commitment (insert lesbian u-haul joke here). We are undeniable soul mates. When the law went into effect in 2013, we already felt like an old married couple. Without federal recognition or a strong desire for a wedding (a very different animal than a marriage), there wasn’t a compelling reason to run to the courthouse. We assumed that marriage would feel no different than the first unmarried 14 years. We discussed marriage, but took no action.
Then it happened. The supreme court overturned DOMA. In the blink of an eye, we could marry with federal recognition just like any opposite sex couple. I was at work when the decision was announced. I doubt any of my colleagues registered that the announcement was coming that day, but I knew. I was on pins and needles all day. I felt electric with anticipation and fear. I was in a cubicle with no privacy, watching the announcement in real time. When it hit me, the truth of it, it was surreal. I read the words on the screen many times before I believed it was real. My eyes blurred, but I willed them to focus to read it again. The visceral emotional reaction surprised me. For the first time in my life, I cried tears of joy.
I already felt married in my heart, but I wept for the political victory. I wept tears of joy for progress. I thought about my own struggles coming out, being rejected by family, feeling shame, feeling afraid. I felt hope that someday people much younger than me wouldn’t comprehend those struggles. Ever the romantic, I texted my girlfriend, “Marry me!” Later, I saw a gay colleague walk by in the hall and she gave me a silent thumbs up and we both started crying again. It felt so good.
We didn’t waste anytime getting married. It felt so real with full federal recognition. Also, our lives were changing fast. My partner struggled with a serious illness, and it was becoming clear that she wasn’t going to continue working. We were eager to get married to take advantage of any legal protections, and to add her to my employee sponsored health insurance policy. We had a simple courthouse wedding. Just us. We sent out postcards after that fact that simply said, “We did it!” with the date and place of our marriage.
I didn’t expect to feel different or get treated different so I was shocked by my experiences as a newlywed. After 14 years, there were no surprises about living together or how we felt about a lifetime commitment, but there were other surprises. The first change was that I started calling her my wife. I struggled with this. I never expected to have a wife so this was foreign to me. I also wasn’t sure how I felt about the term. Many same sex married people use spouse or partner instead of husband or wife. I wanted to try it on for size. It felt like a foreign language. It felt forced at first, but the results were astounding.
As very feminine presenting woman, I am always assumed heterosexual. I’ve found coming out to strangers and acquaintances complicated because I like to handle it naturally and casually rather than explaining over and over throughout my life that I’m gay. It gets old after about a decade. Coming out just never ends. I discuss my life and partner with the same casual comfort as straight people, but it was never simple. I say girlfriend, they think I mean girlfriend like my best friend/gal pal. If they think otherwise, they’re afraid of the small chance that they’re wrong, and I might take offence at being mislabeled as gay. I say partner, they assume my partner is male. Sometimes I corrected them without actually saying, “I’m a gay person”, but they seemed unsure how to process the info. Am I coming out to them, but it’s a secret to others? Are they allowed to openly acknowledge my gayness? Did I really come out or did they misunderstand? What if I’m not in a same-sex relationship, and they offend me over a misunderstanding? Are they allowed to acknowledge my gayness to others or is that outing me?
Wife fixed all that. One simple, elegant, common word.
Now I explain my partner’s significance (not just a girlfriend I started dating last week and not my gal pal), I make her gender clear, and I express the open and public nature of our relationship with one word. Wife. People seem to understand and feel comfortable right away. It is like magic. So simple. So easy. Wife. Any hesitation that I ever felt about the word melted away, and it was replaced with gratitude for such a simple word. Having a wife is awesome.
Wife fixed another problem as well. In my personal life, I’m friends with folks who are queer allies. I don’t have time for any other kind of people. In my professional life, I deal with all kinds of people. Often I work with people who are uncomfortable with my gayness and my comfort being casually out to anyone no matter how it makes them feel. Maybe some of them just don’t know many openly gay people. Some are likely very bigoted against queer people in their personal lives but keep those views private at work. Many times, I’ve referred to my partner or girlfriend only to have someone continue to call her my “friend” or “roommate”. Even after years of corrections. I find this deeply offensive.
I found it offensive even when they were being kind at the same time. A coworker who knew my wife was very ill often asked about the health of my “roommate” or how my “friend” (she managed to say it with verbal air quotes) was doing. It was so hurtful. I never referred to anyone’s husband or wife as their “roommate.” It would be unspeakably rude, and yet it happened to me all the time. It happened to me for years. Different people. Different times. Different cities and states from the Midwest to the South to the Mid-Atlantic. Then she became my wife, and not one person demoted her to “roommate” or “friend”. Not once. There was power in that legal recognition that went beyond taxes and health benefits.
I called our HR rep and asked what she needed from me in order to add my wife to my health insurance plan. She asked if we were married, and I said yes. Then she told me she would check with the company’s attorney about the legal validity of our marriage. She wasn’t sure if it counted as a real marriage. I felt enraged. So many times the legal status of our relationship caused hardship or gave petty people a reason to treat us like shit without any repercussions. I don’t know if this woman was a bigot or just an idiot. I didn’t care. I was angry.
Queer people are used to feeling angry about the way we are treated, but this time was different. In the past, underneath the anger there was always fear. Fear that these people really could treat me however they wanted and get away with it. My parents disowned me. People could deny me a job, refuse to rent me a house, and humiliate me for something as simple as asking to put my wife on my Sam’s club membership (that happened). That meant that underneath the anger was always fear. Fear of worst possible scenario that kept me in line. Fear that kept me polite when I was angry and embarrassed and hurt. Fear that made me smile at bigots and ask nicely for the same things other people got automatically while I seethed in private.
This time I was angry, but there was something else. Instead of fear, I felt solid ground under my feet. I knew that this woman, no matter how stupid or bigoted, couldn’t stop me from adding my wife to my insurance policy. She could be a bitch. She could even hate me, but she didn’t really have any power over me. I didn’t have to beg. I didn’t have to be afraid. I didn’t even really have to be nice or pretend this wasn’t stupid bullshit. I knew it would all work out in the end. I had rights. I had power. I had privilege. It felt so good that in spite of my anger, I hung up the phone and wept tears of joy for a second time. That’s what it means to me to have a wife.
Note: This was first published as a rough draft on GroupThink