Before blogger Gary Russell and I moved to Vermont, we used to lie about our relationship. Oh, not to hide it. Persons who want such a thing to stay private do not invite family, friends and fellow members of their faith to their wedding. They do not write a column about their big day and publish it in a widely read newspaper. They would not accept a generous offer of free professional video and photography of the event.
We did all those things. But the year we married in a Nichiren Buddhist ceremony, 1996, was the same year the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) bullied its way through the U.S. House and Senate. This new law defined marriage in a way that had nothing to do with consenting adults, love or commitment. Instead, it demanded that our country recognize only marriages in which an M and an F are involved. So, with Gary being an M and myself likewise an M, we married the same year we were legislatively told we were not really married.
For the next 17 years, our speech would be compelled under the implicit 11th commandment DOMA created: Thou Shalt Lie.
Sometimes I would engage in minor and ineffectual civil disobedience by adding asterisks and notes to forms asking me about my marital status. I would orally answer such questions with “Well, not legally.” But many times I shamefully went along with the unadorned prevarication of “single” — for instance, when filing tax forms, which ironically require a signature attesting you are not committing perjury under penalty of law.
Montpelier children’s librarian Linden de Voil and community boatbuilder Simon de Voil never had to lie about their marriage.
She — Linden — is an F, and he — Simon — is an M. It says so on their birth certificates. Since their own big day, they have enjoyed the privilege of that special combination of letters. But they feel some affinity for our plight, because Simon was assigned an F at birth.
Simon recognized this error at an early age, and its correction is documented in the 2005 film Funny Kinda Guy. By the time Linden and Simon met, the original F had been replaced by an M. They could marry without the hurdle of a nonapproved combination of letters.
Things would have been different if Simon still bore the mark of F. “We could have been the exact same people in the exact same relationship,” Linden says. “But if he came from a country where they wouldn’t change the F to M, we wouldn’t be sitting here.”
To be fair, Linden speculates, she might not have fallen for Simon when the F identified him. Not because of the letter itself, but because of how awkward and uncomfortable he was in his own body when that designation was forced upon him.
“One of the things that makes me love Simon,” Linden says now, “is how comfortable he is in his own skin.”
Whether M or F, Simon would still be the same person, the same self, the same unified body of cells combined to create a unique human being. Yet so much ado is made about those letters. Talking about the surreal experience of first starting to pass for M, Simon says:
“You’d be in a restaurant with your girlfriend, and people would look over and smile, because you were [a] young couple … in love … People were aware of you, would give you eye contact and would include you.” This was a sharp contrast with the treatment Simon had experienced in a same-sex relationship: “The restaurant would ignore you, and if there was another dyke couple that were older, they would ignore you, because they wouldn’t want to draw attention to you.”
Nancy Schulz is executive director of the Vermont Bicycle and Pedestrian Coalition. She and her spouse have always been Fs, both on paper and by perception.
An F and F fared no better than an M and M under DOMA. So these Vermonters have committed to each other more than once, each time confirming their status as two Fs in love. Each commitment granted them a legal status that came closer to matching the reality.
That process wasn’t without trials and tribulations. Schulz and her partner witnessed firsthand the ugly debate that occurred in Vermont before civil unions, let alone legal marriages, could take place.
“[There were a] lot of bothersome comments being vocalized,” Schulz says. “On the radio, on television, in the Statehouse, on the streets of Vermont … everywhere you went during that period in the late ’90s when the debate was hot and heavy.”
Ugliness of a different sort tainted their civil union itself, when they discovered that just because state law says this or that does not mean people are OK with this or that.
A few months after Vermont approved civil unions, Schulz and her partner had their ceremony at a camp in the Northeast Kingdom. It was a “quiet thing [out on the water],” Schulz says, “with just the minister … our friend who took some pictures and the two of us.”
They signed the guest book just as they had when they visited the camp the previous year. Only this time, of course, they mentioned the ceremony.
According to Schulz, the owners of the camp expressed their “not OK” in a “scathing” letter that claimed the pair had “made a mockery of them [and] went behind their backs to do this.” It further mentioned bringing in a priest to purify the camp, “as if,” Schulz says, “we had had a wild bacchanalian festival.”
But time passes, and the sky hasn’t fallen.
Nearly 10 years later, the debate on allowing same letters to marry was more civil, and in 2009 the state of Vermont made it so.
Schulz and her partner’s second ceremony, a legal marriage in Vermont, was recognized at the state but not the federal level. They had to lie a little on their taxes, file multiple times and recompute to satisfy DOMA’s Thou Shalt Lie command. “The federal government saw us as two single women [and] the state of Vermont saw us as a legally united couple,” Schulz recalls — regardless of what their hearts said they were.
In 2013, the Supreme Court of the United States struck down Section 3 of DOMA, giving the states freedom to decide what marriage is. The federal government will go along with that decision, recognizing couples married under state law as, well, married. This return to the pre-DOMA status quo has ignited a flurry of ongoing legal battles in several of the 30-plus states that currently have marriage amendments.
Schulz says she hopes 2014 tax time will be more in line with the couple’s otherwise fiscally uncomplicated lives. IRS publication Revenue Ruling 2013-17 makes it clear that, for federal tax purposes, DOMA is no more.
The couple will get another vital new right, too. Given that Schulz is 58 and her spouse 62, “being able to collect your spouse’s Social Security, should your spouse die, is important to us,” she says.
On the Social Security Administration’s same-sex couples web page, the survivor benefits of same-sex spouses appear to be favorably addressed, but information about other benefits remains unavailable. As the time of this writing, SSA regional communications director Roberto Medina had not yet responded to my inquiries.
Bureaucratic slowness notwithstanding, the forecast is clear.
Gary and I now live in Vermont, home of granite, maple syrup and true-blue values. In 2013, we got married married. We, like Schulz and her spouse, are still figuring out what this new-to-us legal recognition means going forward.
I recently called GEICO and changed my status to “married,” which netted me a small discount on auto insurance. More importantly, I didn’t get questioned, challenged or otherwise told my marriage didn’t count.
I simply reported that I am married, speaking the whole truth and nothing but the truth.
The original print version of this article was headlined "Letters of the Law"