At a community organizing event recently I met a man who caught my eye. He was handsome and articulate, but I noticed he was wearing a wedding ring. In conversation, he mentioned his husband. My stomach dropped a little further than usual. Here’s a new term for unavailable: “Husband.” Add to this that even his late to mid-30s he’s ten years younger than I am, it feels like windows of opportunity are closing quickly. It’s walking out to the car in your driveway only to see your neighbor climb into his spaceship and take off.
There is a finality to hearing ‘husband’ that there isn’t with “boyfriend” or “partner.” “Boyfriend,” even “partner,” feels like something achievable. Husband, not so much. “Husband” is forever. Even my friends in decades long relationships speak of the feeling of permanence they hadn’t had before now that they’re married. What power in a word, in an institution. Strangely, now that something I’ve wanted for most of my life is possible, it feels further away than ever.
I’ve always wanted a wedding ring. It’s the first thing I look for on a man’s hand. It’s so automatic I barely notice I’m doing it anymore, like Jane Russell in a 1950’s sex comedy. I see wedding rings everywhere. It was a fantasy to have one, but only now that it’s legal am I really contemplating what it means, and what the fantasy is about.
I started looking at rings as a way to identify availability. Growing up in the Midwest and the Southwest, it was not always easy to identify who was gay. Wedding rings were a quick shortcut: yes, off-limits; no, available. Even better, if the ring was on the right hand, it might mean that the guy was in a relationship with another man. Or European. I don’t know that any of it was even true, but I believed it, along with the significance of earrings, handkerchiefs and liking George Michael.
I’m 48. When I was born it was illegal for two adult men to have sex in New York City. When I was coming out in 1985, it was an event to see a man with his shirt off anywhere. I waited for “Another Country” to show on The Movie Channel so I could see Rupert Everett and Cary Elwes embracing in a boat in their doomed boys’ school love affair. I knew how far into the movie, to the minute, when Harry Hamlin made out with Michael Ontkean in “Making Love,” ditto the dancing cowboy shower scene in “Best Little Whorehouse in Texas.”
In college, I channeled my sexuality into politics and fear of death — AIDS, ACT UP and coming out, followed by years of worrying, drinking, and casual sex. A few intense relationships always ended up in a similar fashion as my first. After I broke off my last year-long relationship I cried for days, and actually had to call in sick to work because my entire body ached and I couldn’t stop sobbing. I broke up that relationship because I couldn’t see us married. Or, to be accurate, I could, but it didn’t feel right. I’ve loved all the men I’ve been with for any period of time. I still do, but marriage?
When I was a kid, my Dad loved David Janssen in a TV show called “Harry O.” At the end of one of the episodes, Harry jogs on a beach with a voiceover intoning that he’s “alone, but never lonely….” I’ve wondered if remembering that sentiment from the age of 8 was an augur of a solo future. It could be growing up watching “The Love Boat” made finding matrimony the point of living. Perhaps it’s the intense pressure I’ve put on myself to find someone perfect that makes the disappointment when I don’t so sharp. Perhaps the dream of marriage has been the thing keeping me from it. I’ve reflexively looked for wedding rings, attaching to the idea some kind of safety and refuge.
Somewhere along the way, the ring morphed from a signifier of availability to a symbol of what I was lacking. A relationship felt impossible. I felt more at ease criticizing and assessing gay culture than being in it. I spent an entire summer on Fire Island listening to Joni Mitchell and walking on the beach. On the streets of New York I would listen to sad women singing about lost love on my Walkman. A ring became a symbol of longing and failure. From what was possible to what was impossible.
Only once in my life, for a fleeting moment, did I really consider it. I was at a party with a friend whom I’d recently met. I was so enjoying his company, I thought to myself, “I see why people get married.” We had and still have no romantic chemistry, sadly, but he’s the only person I’ve ever had that thought about, fleeting as it was. It had nothing to do with the adrenaline of attraction, sex, looks, infatuation, or anything else I had been looking for, just the easy joy of being with him. I’ve always wanted the ring, but in that moment I realized you need the right man to go with it.
Beneath of all of it is fear: fear of making the wrong choice; fear of committing to something and not being able to leave; of being left; of being known, or unknown; of not being enough; fear that what people have said for years is true, that two men can’t be in a relationship, that we’re playing at making house.
I know that is not true. There have been same sex love relationships since time began. There will continue to be. We’ll continue to love each other. I want to celebrate this freedom, too, even as in some countries we are still beheaded, killed, thrown off of buildings. Since Trump’s election I’ve seen notes left on doors, on cars, threatening gay families. The most radical act we can do is to love each other and celebrate it.
In 1994, when I was dating my first boyfriend, he suddenly pulled his hand away when I tried to hold it. We’d never been hesitant about affection, but we were in Boulder, Colorado, during the day, on a main thoroughfare. Recently I did the same with a man I was dating. On my own street. In Los Angeles. For gay people, the act and the institution that is supposed to bring us safety brings us completely out and makes us vulnerable in a new way. When you love you want to protect, so it’s a paradox that declaring a love and a bond, expressing that affection, can make you feel less safe. I’ve often thought that some men and women stay closeted because coming out to yourself is terrifying. If coming out to yourself is terrifying, then admitting you love someone of the same gender is coming out on an even deeper level. Marriage is the furthest degree.
I recently watched a close friend from high school marry his partner of twenty years with their ten-year old son in attendance. It was joyful. The year before I stood up for a friend marrying his partner of many years, everyone crammed into a living room when the rain made the planned outdoor ceremony impossible. It was perfect. Another couple got married to each other for the third time in twenty years, at the La Brea Tar Pits, followed by donuts. I’ve been to more gay weddings than heterosexual ones, and have been privileged to see strong, healthy gay relationships. I see men with incredibly specific quirks find other men with incredibly specific quirks and live in wacky, hilarious happiness.
I’ve been making a documentary about long-term gay bear couples, mostly married, in relationships ranging from ten to twenty-six years. It’s demystified a great deal of it for me. It’s work. It can be a slog. All agree that they only do the work of being in a relationship because they’ve found the person they want to do the work with. The strength of the love these men have for each other, and the freedom they give each other to explore and celebrate who each other is inspires me. They’ve also thought a lot about it, because we have to. It’s been something we’ve had to fight for.
I know that as I celebrate these relationships, part of me also fears. I’ve been waiting for that fear and discomfort to go away before I fully embark myself. The courage must be to know all of it, acknowledge it, and do it anyway. That’s why I am so impressed by them. It’s a true triumph of love, to stand up and say it’s not perfect, but this time, this person, now. This ideal of security, marriage, is in truth the greatest vulnerability.
In the deepest part of my heart, I rejoice to hear that a man in his thirties has a husband. My stomach might sink a little for not having that in my own life so far, or how insurmountable it seems at this moment, but it’s truly outweighed by how empowering and satisfying it is to hear a man refer to his “husband.” I can watch him launch his spaceship, and then drive the road in my own car looking to possibly to find a passenger my speed, or to just enjoy the ride. My car may be a little charred from his takeoff, but I’ll choose instead to think of it as burnished, like gold.