Don’t Be a Wife

I’m a lesbian and I’m never getting married. Why are you?

Loren Cowley, left, and Michelle Ricketts seal their vows with a kiss outside the ruling Labor Party's conference during a mass 'illegal wedding'.
Loren Cowley, left, and Michelle Ricketts seal their vows with a kiss during a mass “illegal wedding” in Sydney in 2009

Photograph by Torsten Blackwood/AFP/Getty Images.

As soon as New York approved marriage equality in June 2011, I started hearing the question. Straight friends posed it with an air of excitement and fellow gays with trepidation: “Are you getting married?”

Although the word NO springs immediately to mind, I’ve learned to pause and stretch out a “Naaaah” that expresses hesitation and uncertainty. Faux hesitation and uncertainty. Because I am not getting married. Never. No way. Not happening. Not me.

I don’t want to offend anyone who has chosen to say “I do,” and I certainly don’t want to dis the activists who worked so hard to get legislation and referenda passed. I celebrated the Election Day victories in Washington, Maine, Maryland, and Minnesota, but I wouldn’t have chosen marriage equality as a political priority, though I of course believe our relationships should be treated with the same legitimacy as heterosexual marriages when it comes to rights like immigration and Social Security inheritance. I’ve since come to realize the gay marriage battle’s strategic genius, however—marriage is such a conservative institution and such a basic civil right that selectively denying it to one group of citizens eventually seems (and is) undeniably hateful.

Still, it’s not for me. My resistance to marriage isn’t about avoiding commitment or responsibility. I’ve been in a blissfully happy monogamous relationship for going on 16 years. We own property and are raising a cat together. I just don’t want to be a wife—and I don’t want a wife of my own.

I came out back when gay and marriage went together like an octopus and carriage. I never dreamed of a fabulous wedding or hoped that the institution would one day be open to the likes of me. When people say you can’t go to a party, it’s natural to decide that you’d rather stay away.

I spent the ’80s and a good chunk of the ’90s on feminist collectives and working for feminist presses—and although we didn’t have marriage itself in the cross-hairs, on a certain level the institution represented the patriarchy and the tendency of some men to act as though they “owned” their wives and could control their lives. (This doesn’t guarantee an aversion to matrimony, of course. My pal E.J. Graff worked on very similar projects at around the same time, and she wrote the book on marriage.)

Marriage works out fabulously for some people. It’s always been pretty great for men. (My straight female Spanish friends who’ve reached their mid-30s without making a trip down the aisle have told hair-raising tales of how unmarried men frantically start looking for a wife once they realize their mothers won’t always be around to take care of them.) Even in more egalitarian circles, marriage—not only to women—has a civilizing influence on men. Marriage also clarifies responsibilities when children are involved.

Indeed, clarity is one of marriage’s more obvious benefits. As Andrew Sullivan wrote in his landmark 1989 essay “Here Comes the Groom: A (Conservative) Case for Gay Marriage”: “You either are or you are not married. It’s not a complex question.” When the Washington Post Co. bought Slate and offered to move those of us based in Seattle to D.C. or New York City, a couple of colleagues asked if my girlfriend—who had been in the picture since before I joined the magazine—was going with me. Surely they realized we were more than roommates? I know they would never have asked a married heterosexual that question, and they wouldn’t have asked me if I’d referred to her as my wife instead of my partner or girlfriend.

Of course, nomenclature has always been a tricky part of gay and lesbian relationships. The terms girlfriend or boyfriend seem more suited to the early “getting to know you” phase than what even I think of as “old married coupledom.” Partner evokes a business relationship (though that might be a result of its relative rarity here—in Britain, where it’s widely used by both straight and gay couples, it somehow seems less cold), and that old ’80s favorite lover is too much information. Inventing new terms would be self-defeating. When a man calls another man his husband—or a woman refers to her wife—it is simultaneously political and intimate. As the New York Times’ gay etiquette columnist recently wrote, “The use of husband and wife for a same-sex spouse still gives many pause—if only because it’s just not that familiar.” So just by using them we’re raising some straight people’s consciousness while at the same time reassuring others that we’re just as square as they are.

It still freaks me out, though. Does my discomfort at being considered another woman’s wife stem from internalized self-loathing? Maybe, but mostly I think I’m responding to the essential conservatism of marriage mania.

In “Here Comes the Groom” Sullivan took a swipe at the “gay leadership,” one of his favorite adversaries, much of which, he said, “clings to notions of gay life as essentially outsider, anti-bourgeois, radical.” He’s right, but I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. Lesbians are already ridiculously good at monogamy. How much squarer do you want me to be?

I’ve noticed that my visceral anti-marriage animus is particularly strong when I hear twentysomething lesbians talking about their wives and fiancees. Are they really going to mate for life, like swans in sensible shoes? That seems attractive at 35, but at 25 it’s positively Amish. Worst of all, it threatens the continued evolution of a talent perfected over the millennia as our relationships have gone unrecognized by church and state: a gift for breaking up. Lesbians tend to bond intensely and often. Once a relationship has run its course, lovers become great friends. If you know a lesbian, chances are you know a lesbian who’s gone on vacation with her current girlfriend, an ex-girlfriend, and a dog she once shared with a different ex.

I don’t want to lose that. And I don’t want to be just like everyone else.