The Queer Thing About Love: Counting Our Blessings A Year After Obergefell
Ask a gay couple how long they’ve been together and the answer will probably come in multiple-choice format. Do you mean
(A) How long have we been an item?
(B) How long have we lived together?
(C) How long have we been married? or
(D) How long have we been legal?
For my husband and me, the answers are (A) ten years, (B) seven years, (C) six years, and (D) it depends on your jurisdiction. Confused counting is one of the occupational hazards of being gay at this period of history. Since the nationwide legalization of gay marriage, our system of marking time has felt outmoded. For queer people, 2015 was the equivalent of going from B.C. to C.E., though in our case, it was B.K. (Before Justice Kennedy) to E.E. (Equality Era).
Back in the ancient, pre-Obergefell world, there was a lot to overcome as a gay couple. Maryland, our home at the time, did not recognize our marriage, so we stocked copies of affidavits and powers of attorney in our glove compartments and freezer. The act of holding hands transformed from personal to political as we weathered taunts on the streets. We paid the IRS a $1600 “gay tax” every year for the privilege of sharing a health insurance policy.
Those were difficult days. Marriage is a tough business for anyone. But being surrounded by messages that our relationship was illegitimate, illicit, and ill-fated stoked the fires of self-doubt and undermined the confidence we had in one another. For a while I lived under the assumption that I was being graded on my performance as a spouse, and I feared that if my numbers dipped, my husband would begin to consider alternatives. I watched for signs of impending collapse. I saw every fight or disappointment as another chapter in his Big Book of Leaving. He deserves most of the credit for our surviving those early years. At some point I began to trust that he was really in it for the long haul. When I did, something shifted inside me: I became less paranoid, less vindictive. I’ve always believed that love keeps no record of wrongs, but I thought that was only because it was in bad taste, like the polyester pants that I keep but don’t advertise. Slowly I realized that I have no use for such a record, and I put myself to the task of building our shared life.
Like kids rubbing pennies together in hopes of generating wealth, we took our only two assets — trust and diligence — and put them to work, making investments in our marriage in the hopes of someday being able to live off the interest. We attended rallies and lobby sessions. We met with church leaders and counselors. We read books and wrote letters and sat patiently with conservatives as they struggled to understand us. We made some close friends along the way, other queer couples who were fighting similar battles. We laughed and cried with one another and we dreamed of the day when we could stop fighting and simply be. “If we can make it through this,” we kept saying, “nothing can tear us apart.”
Now, in the year 2 E.E., almost all of those obstacles have crumbled. Five years ago I wouldn’t have thought such revolution possible. And if I could have imagined it, I would have thought there was probably nothing left that could threaten our happy marriage. Infidelity? How pedestrian. We had suffered three years of fighting with family members who boycotted our wedding, and we forgave them for it. Difficult children? Please. We had stood toe-to-toe with intransigent legislators. (Children who won’t listen to reason are annoying; in adults, it should be considered mitigating circumstances by the criminal courts.) When SCOTUS dropped the mic on June 26, 2015, we swapped our swords for Singapore Slings and celebrated the beginning of a long matrimonial retirement. At reunions with our old warrior friends, we would gaze at each other as if to say, “Can you believe we really made it?” We started talking about having children and envisioned regaling them with war stories from the B.K. era, safe in the knowledge that our days of fighting for love had made our family unassailable.
When the economy went belly-up in the housing crash, the world learned an important lesson: Solid assets have a tendency to sublimate if not watched carefully. This turns out to be true of relationships, too. Without warning, friends with whom we had just won the right to marry found themselves suddenly, shockingly bankrupt as their rock-solid relational investments turned out to be not just liquid, but vaporous. Perhaps because gay couples don’t know how to count, they had unwarily contracted the Seven-Year Itch, a sociological phenomenon in which you get tired of trying to be the person your spouse wishes you were. It’s a time characterized by dulling routine, solo bedtimes, and disillusionment. Couples who become terminal Itch patients divorce not out of crisis but out of niggling disappointment. Our friends’ marriages dissolved seemingly overnight, leaving us wondering just how secure our own was against a sudden devaluation. If all our investments could disappear like a 2008 hedge fund, would it be wise to take responsibility for a child? Children are a gift, according to conventional wisdom. But in family court, it is the childless who count their blessings. It would be painful enough if we ever decided to curtail our coupledom. Should we really take the risk of adding another life to our arrangement?
About the time we started asking these questions, our adoption agency called, and we two became three.
If parenting has taught me anything thus far, it’s that there is no then clause on the other side of “If we can make it through this.” Now in my first year of fatherhood, I keep waiting for that moment when worry will melt away and I am free just to enjoy watching our little boy grow. But when one challenge passes, three more take its place. The fragility of infancy gives rise to the rambunctiousness of childhood and the rebelliousness of teenagedom, and so begins a lifetime of peril. What if something happens to him that I can’t fix? What if he blames me for his pain? What if my failure as a father makes my husband despise me? What if my failure as a husband makes my son scorn me?
In these moments of terror and doubt, I feel more like a child than a parent, standing at the bottom of the slide ladder, afraid to make the climb because I might pitch over the side and hurt myself. And the chance that I will suffer or cause significant pain goes up with each minute I spend on the playground of life. One day I will crash into someone and cause an injury I regret. One day someone will step on the see-saw and catch me under the chin. And we will be angry, and there will be tears and blood.
But we will not die. And this is not an insignificant point. The queer thing about life and love that there are two ways to lose them. The first is catastrophe, which is both unlikely and beyond our control. We are more at risk of dying a little at a time, locking ourselves away from others and avoiding danger — by which I mean something we don’t know how to handle — by which I mean life. When we are really and truly safe, we can be sure the end has come.
I have no guarantee that my happiness will last. Against the threat of dissolution, I wield the only tools I have ever possessed: trust and diligence. They are all that any of us ever has. We trust that when we wake up tomorrow the world will look similar to how it did today, even though history gives us plenty of reasons to believe otherwise. We trust that when we see our parents’ number on caller ID, they’re calling to give us a recipe and not funeral arrangements. We trust that when we step on a plane, we’ll step off again a few hours later feeling stiff but alive. Living is either one act of trust or a series of thousands. It doesn’t matter which, because in life, as in marriage, math doesn’t protect you from hazard.
Nine years ago, my husband and I spent the afternoon strolling through the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore. Later, as we chased the chilly November air with steaming cups of hot apple cider, we looked at each other and said, “I think we’re dating now.” It was the beginning of a long, difficult, and beautiful adventure. Then, just as now, the best advice I had was this:
Stop counting. Keep working. Practice trust.
It’s a mantra I need a little more every day as life gets increasingly joyful and perilous.
This essay is adapted from an address given as part of Groton School’s 2016 Chapel Talk series.