By Jennifer Berney
“Ralph says that boys can’t marry boys,” my son said to me as I drove him home from preschool.
Ralph, who sported a buzz cut and freckles, was a longtime friend of my son’s. More than once I’d heard him voicing his mother’s opinions to an audience of four-year-olds, like the time he explained that babies took too much work and cost too much money. He delivered this news as I held my newborn infant.
“Well Ralph is confused,” I replied, glancing in the rearview mirror.
“He’s not confused; he’s wrong,” my son corrected.
It was July of 2013, just months after our own state had voted to allow same-sex marriages, and weeks after the Defense of Marriage Act was repealed. If Ralph or his sources hadn’t yet woken up to the reality of gay marriage in our state, they weren’t alone. I, too, hesitated to believe it. For straight people, a wedding was usually an event confined to a single day. But for my partner and me the process of getting married had been ongoing, continual, endless. Were we finally, really real?
When Kellie and I exchanged vows in 2003, there was nothing legal about our wedding. Neither of us dreamed we’d live to see the end of DOMA or—even more surprisingly—marriage equality in all fifty states, but that didn’t stop us from wanting to declare our love. And so, on a Sunday in August, we gathered friends and family in a circle on a friend’s green lawn. Our friend Queen, who wore a blue dress and red lipstick, opened the ceremony by informing our friends that they were a part of this commitment too. “By standing here today,” she told them, “you agree to be available to Kellie and Jenn, three months from now, ten years from now, anytime their marriage needs support.”
In that moment, more than any other, I reckoned with what it meant to be married: it was more than a private promise between myself and my partner; it was an intention declared, witnessed, and affirmed by those who loved us. Still, it felt significant that this affirmation did not extend into the world at large. On paper, as far as any lawyer was concerned, Kellie and I were simply roommates. I didn’t want this to matter, but it did. Any time I referred to my marriage, I was tempted to use air quotes.
Four years later, our state passed a bill allowing State Registered Domestic Partnerships to same-sex couples. It was a compromise of sorts, an option that was like marriage but with the most unromantic possible name. The legal rights that SRDPs conferred were significant: if Kellie landed in the hospital I could visit her; I could now get health insurance through Kellie’s employer. But there were also limitations: we couldn’t file our taxes jointly; I still couldn’t use the word “married” in the legal sense, and when we welcomed our first son into the world the following year, we’d have to spend over ten thousand dollars in legal fees to add Kellie’s name to the birth certificate.
Some of our friends who registered for SRDP status treated it like a wedding. They dressed up and threw grand parties. But Kellie and I were tentative. Hadn’t we already done the thing that mattered? When we went to the courthouse we treated it like an errand. Afterwards we went out for a glass of wine, but weren’t sure what to toast—bureaucracy? Separate-but-not-quite-equal rights?
I was seven months pregnant with our second child when our state passed a bill allowing same-sex marriages. I’d spent my pregnancy rooting for this bill for reasons that were largely practical. If the bill passed, and if Kellie and I could wed before the baby arrived, we could easily (and cheaply) add her name to the birth certificate. Instead of hiring a lawyer, we could simply fill out a few forms.
What I thought was our final act of marriage took place on our living room couch on January 6, 2013. Some friends were disappointed that we weren’t having a big party. “But we had our real wedding ten years ago,” I told them. “Remember? You were there.” Our friend Queen, who married us initially sat between us, and we re-read the vows we’d exchanged nearly a decade before. Two close friends had come to bear witness. They brought flowers and chocolate, and sat cross-legged on our floor. The baby, who would arrive two weeks later, turned and kicked me from the inside. Our first son was four and he kept interrupting. “Can’t we build a puzzle?” he kept asking our friends. “Can we watch a movie?”
Ten minutes later, we all crouched around the coffee table to sign the marriage license. In doing so, we finally completed the ceremony we’d begun ten years earlier.
Or at least I thought we were finished. Two and a half years later, on a Friday I would open my computer to see that the equal marriage map had gone green, that the Supreme Court had declared marriage equality a constitutional right. My breath would catch in my throat. I would try to call out to Kellie in the next room to share the news but discover that I was speechless. Our marriage would now be recognized in every U.S. state.
In the car that day, as I merged on the freeway, I continued to explain why Ralph might think that “boys can’t marry other boys.”
“There are still lots of places where men can’t marry men, and women can’t marry women. Some people just like to make rules about things that don’t matter.”
My son remained quiet, and I assumed he’d lost interest.
“Don’t you remember our wedding?” I asked him. “You were there. It was right before your brother was born.”
I thought that he might find some small joy in this, but instead a note of distress entered his voice. “You mean you weren’t married when I was born?”
“It’s complicated,” I told him. I kept talking on and on, trying to explain the logistics. But instead I should have told him what I, too, most needed to hear: It’s okay. It’s real. All of it. Our marriage, our family, our love.
Jennifer Berney is a Brain, Child contributing blogger. Her essays have also appeared in The New York Times Motherlode, the Brevity blog, and Mutha. She is currently working on a memoir that chronicles her years-long quest to conceive a child. You can connect with her on Twitter, or on her personal blog, Goodnight Already.