2016 marked the first calendar year in which marriage equality has been the law of the land. So quickly has the idea been embraced, so wildly uncontroversial has it become that we almost have to remind ourselves: Last year’s Supreme Court decision allowing it was epic, heroic, a rare crying-in-the-streets moment. Unless you’re a homophobic baker upset about the fabulous cakes you have to bake for gay couples, I think we can all agree: It has made us a kinder, better nation.
But now that we can all marry ourselves, I keep wondering when we’re going to have the larger discussion, the one we’ve been putting off. The one about marriage itself. Because it’s been here the whole time, sitting like a veiled elephant in the room.
This country is way too wedded to marriage. In America, you are not quite legit if you are not married, looking to get married, or watching a reality-TV show about getting married. Marriage is still the ultimate cultural, social, and legal blessing, a kind of secular sacrament. The Elmer’s glue of our society! Whether that notion, or the weight we give it, makes any sense anymore—whether we might be stronger if we were less invested in it, and more democratic if we supported people who choose other paths—is the glaring societal discussion we somehow refuse to have.
If you’re happily married, that is awesome. If you’re about to get married, I have no intention of popping your prenuptial bubble. Seriously: Good for you! Some of my best friends are married. Everyone has the right to decide how they mark and celebrate their love. But we’re not even halfway there yet.
Because think about it. For all of our remarkable social progress and our growing acceptance of different lifestyles, our culture still has no word for what millions of us are: couples co-habiting happily in states of un-marital bliss.
It’s out there buried in the news, in the occasional headline: UNMARRIED COUPLES LIVING TOGETHER IS NEW U.S. NORM. It’s there in the data: Three out of four American women have lived in what we used to call sin by the time they turn 30.
Take me. I’ve been with the same person for 22 years, but because we’re gay and we choose not to get married, I still have to mark “single” on virtually every official application. No word for what we are. Nor what we are to each other. What do I call him? He’s a lot more interesting than my boyfriend, less corporate-sounding than my partner, and legally not quite my husband. I’d say he’s my soul mate, but there’s no IRS form for that. At Thanksgiving one year, my aunt looked him up and down, then winked at me and asked me if he was my “special friend.” She said it real smooth, like we were all living in the gay version of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. But I don’t think special friend is gonna cut it.
To understand what I mean, you have to consider what came before marriage equality. Decades of gay people struggling for dignity and equal status. What’d we do? We found our own ways to legitimize our relationships, outside of society and largely free of its blessings. And that struggle defined us, made us stronger, gave us meaning. So to a lot of us, the new “gift” of marriage, while fundamental and appreciated, can feel like a form of late-arriving condescension, especially when people come up and ask us, quite sweetly and eagerly, if we’re going to get married now. Isn’t it amazing, they seem to be saying, that you finally get to be just like us?
Is that what we were striving for? I didn’t think so. We wanted basic equality, not total conformity. The right to live our lives as we see fit. Why would we all rush to sign up for an institution with a 50 percent fail rate? Why buy into it in the first place?
I think a lot of people are with me on this. For plenty of folks in long-term relationships these days, straight or gay, marriage is fraught, heavy, old-fashioned. It’s that thing your parents did until it destroyed them. What’s the point of it? we wonder. We already love each other, are already bound to each other. Why attach ourselves legally to a construct that feels like it serves lawyers, accountants, and the sentimental hopes of our great-aunt from Poughkeepsie?
Even before I was given the choice, marriage has always struck me as strangely unromantic. All that “till death do us part” stuff feels a little austere and melodramatic, don’t you think? I fully expect to be with my partner till I expire in a pool of saliva, but what a buzzkill to write it down in a contract. I’m being playfully morbid here, but it’s true: With its ironclad conditions and dire oaths, marriage has all the romance of a restraining order and seems by its very nature insecure, an institution unhealthily fixated on its own demise. And it virtually guarantees that the only legal way out of it other than death—divorce—will be catastrophic for all.