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Marriage of Inconvenience

How one lesbian Vermont couple said "I do" in San Fransico


Published March 3, 2004 at 6:48 p.m.

How did this happen? My girlfriend Alison and I, a nice couple of radical lesbian feminists, married? Us? Have we really tossed aside 11 years of self-defined stability for a sanction from the state? It's been just over a week since we shuffled through the corridors of San Francisco's City Hall with hundreds of other queers, seeking the now infamous license that dares speak its name. During those five hours in line, we bonded with the sweet thirtysomething California couple who were giving up their statewide domestic-partnership rights to get married after eight years together.

"You're from Vermont?" the earnest corporate one asked. "Oh, so you got the civil thing?"

"You didn't?" said the edgy, artsy one. "Why not?"

Why not a civil union? That's been the easiest question to answer among the myriad that have come to mind since Valentine's Day, when I got down on one knee and proposed. A civil union never crossed our minds, let alone our threshhold. We're two prime products of the post-Stonewall, 1970s and '80s anti-establishment Lesbian Nation counterculture. Welcome the State of Vermont into our relationship? You talkin' to me?

So when I found myself wanting to get married, I was -- to put it mildly -- surprised. Just look at the trite booty I hauled home on Valentine's Day: flowers, champagne, chocolate, candles and a downloaded copy of the California marriage-license application tied up in the gaudiest red ribbon available on Church Street. What had gotten into me?

Sure, when I heard the news about Phyllis Lyon and Del Martin becoming the first queer U.S. couple to get hitched, I was stirred by their act of civil disobedience. This was history, I thought. This was positive change. These women were the authors of the 1972 classic Lesbian/Woman -- the first dyke book that Alison and I had both read, years before we met. And, as it happened, we had long-standing plans to be in San Francisco the next week. We could do this.

As I pondered the possibility, however, sitting at my computer, seeing the growing tally of newlyweds reported on, something else was creeping into my consciousness: romance. There's a complex, deceptive little word. At it simplest, it's the fantasy of future happiness that is implanted and reinforced by every fairy story and Hollywood blockbuster. I would later learn, however, that this was not at the core of my romantic desire.

For the moment, I tried to brush off my arrhythmia as another perimenopausal swoon. But the fact was, the romantic fantasy was part of me. And I wanted it as much as my sister did when she'd had the balls to wear white on her wedding day.

"Oh, what the fuck," I thought ineloquently, giving in to the historic and romantic imaginings quickening my pulse. "Go with it."

When I proposed, I wasn't surprised by Alison's response: "OK. But… what about our radical politics?"

I quoted F. Scott Fitzgerald: "The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function."

It did the trick. The march down the aisle had begun. It wouldn't be a simple stroll. We had no idea what a rollercoaster of ambivalence we'd boarded. At first, logistics predominated. We'd need $157 cash for the license and ceremony. When's City Hall open? What's the latest court ruling? Pack. Catch the plane.

Somewhere over Indiana, with empty hours and nothing but blue-chip snacks to distract us, Alison's doubts surfaced. Mine quickly followed. This was more than jitters. This was the internal conflict of political conscience morphed into all-out panic. It didn't help that I was dodging sneezes from the guy across the aisle.

The plane landed just as a San Francisco County judge was hearing the latest legal request to stop this queer-marriage nonsense. Our airborne concerns paled beside the prospect of witnessing breathing history. We headed straight to City Hall, just to be there when the news hit. We passed media, protesters. A cop rolled his eyes at the "Save the Children!" chants. "Yeah," he said. "Like this is gonna make the children curl up and die."

We decided to await the court decision at the end of the line of couples. It wound through the marble halls, down grand stairways and into the bowels of the building. We passed women in tuxes and gowns, people in jeans, business suits, guys with beer guts, young men with fresh haircuts, bouquets and sharply pressed trousers, toddlers in tow. At line's end, we met our new California friends, Zoe and Crystal, now worrying about their dog, home alone.

There was a stirring in the crowd. The word came down: Success at court. Marriages would continue. Stay where you are to get an appointment in the coming weeks.

The decision before us was clear. If we were going ahead with this, we had to stay and hope for a time slot in the few days we'd be in town. The lure of the chase took over. Of course we'd try. Who could resist the challenge of overcoming an obstacle? Zoe called her 83-year-old mother in Virginia, who said that Wednesday would be good for the two of them astrologically.

Eighteen hours into our day, dinner missed, migraine meds not yet kicking in, we held a paper granting us the one remaining appointment before we had to fly back to Vermont. My legs started to shake. Reality set in. We were getting married in four days.

By the time our appointment came up, we'd found rings to exchange. Mood rings, $4 a pop. Governor Schwarzenegger had demanded that the state's attorney stop these rascals in San Francisco already. I envisioned Arnold sending a robot back in time to kill whoever introduced Del and Phyllis. I finally informed my sisters of our plan. They were thrilled. They each asked what I'd be wearing. It had never crossed my mind.

Neither had the fact that I was actually going to say, "I do." When the moment was suddenly upon me, as I faced Alison in the rotunda, I found myself crying. Leaving City Hall, license in hand, I felt no different than if I'd just finished an intense work project. Until the guy across the street yelled, "Kiss my ass!" A rogue protester had left the pack.

We had just enough time to catch the plane home. As we found our seats, the little Jet Blue televisions blinked on. There was our president talking up his constitutional-amendment scheme. People are dying in Haiti, in Iraq, in Palestine, in Israel. Domestic U.S. policies are a study in corruption. And George takes time to think about me on my wedding day.

As a married, non-CU'ed Vermont lesbian, I now have a clear view of my marriage as both a legal contract -- which doesn't apply in Vermont -- and a social construct. Having rejected the legal, I'm left with the social. And it's the social, lemme tell you, that is the real desire behind romance. Such attention! Such support!

Back home, work colleagues spring for drinks. Friends from around the globe send congrats. "Corks!" comes an email from London. "Mazel tov!" says one of the most radical activists we know. My teenaged nieces and nephews have started saying "Aunt Alison." My suburban sisters and brothers-in-law are still "jumping for joy."

Of course, all of this is the communal collusion that supports and defines marriage. Because, as people from nearly every part of the political spectrum agree, stable relationships are good for society. But I can't help thinking, "What do you people think we've been doing for 11 years? Playing house? Having women on the side?"

Three days after the wedding, I regret it. I long for the pure simplicity of being an outlaw again. Partially stripped of my outsider status, will my observer's edge dull? What else will seduce me? Reclining chairs? Humvees? Timeshares? Children? Four days after the wedding, I'm exhilarated by my part in history. Five days in, the regret's back. I exhaust me.

Inevitably, I take a bigger view. I think about the queers with kids who need protection but don't live in Vermont or San Francisco. I think about the efforts in New Mexico, Massachusetts, upstate New York, and the struggles to come. And what about the queers around the world who face horrors I'll never know? Then I recognize my privilege, and I'm grateful. How could I not welcome our friends' and family's congratulations? With contradiction-embracing Fitzgerald as my god, the rollercoaster track has leveled off. Today I know: Getting married was a great thing to do. Or not.