Life

To Have and to Mold?

The trappings of marriage have a way of erasing the queerness of same-sex relationships. But can the institution possibly be reformed?

A wedding cake topper with two brides.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Jeffrey Hamilton/Photodisc.

This piece is part of the Passing issue, a special package from Outward, Slate’s home for coverage of LGBTQ life, thought, and culture. Read more here.

For gays who generally pass as straight to the untrained eye—ever since I grew out my side shave, I count myself in this cohort—there’s sometimes a distinct moment just after coming out to a new person where you’re still talking, because you just dropped a casual mention of your gayness, but you’re also trying to assess your interlocutor’s reaction. Is he going to be weird when he comes to spray for house centipedes and sees all the queer theory on the bookshelves? Is she going to start peppering all your interactions with spontaneous invocations of “love wins!” And, most importantly: Did they pick up what you just put down?

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That last question is compounded by the fact that the queer lexicon is full of imperfect words for our sexual and romantic unions begging to be misinterpreted by straight people. Girlfriend sounds infantilizing when applied to a person older than 25, and among people older than 45 or deeply oblivious to gay signifiers, it holds a platonic connotation. Partner, an already-blurry term with common applications in the business world, has been increasingly co-opted by woke straight couples. Nowadays, I have a fiancée, but when I mention her to someone new, she can masquerade as a fiancé, without the queerness of the extra e. I anxiously look forward to adopting the dignified word wife for the sake of clarity after we sign the papers in 2019, forever ending any ambiguity around my relationship.

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Psych! Queer politics are never that simple (praise be!), and my impending marriage has aroused a whole new set of assimilation anxieties in me. Gay marriages have been performed in some states for 14 years and in every state for three; for generations before that, lesbian and gay couples nurtured relationships that were marriages in every sense but the legal one. The institution is rapidly gaining buy-in in queer communities: Last summer, a Gallup poll found that more than 10 percent of “LGBT adults” were married to a same-gender spouse, up from less than 8 percent just two years earlier. And still, I can’t shake the notion that marriage is an inherently heterosexual relationship model built to encode men’s power over women. Still, when I see what looks like an engagement ring or wedding band on a finger, I assume that I’ll find the body of a straight person attached.

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Wedding rings were, in a sense, invented to prevent a certain kind of passing. In America, if you choose to wear a ring on the third finger of your left hand, you give up your ability to pass as single, available, and looking, no matter the monogamy or lack thereof in your marital agreement. Women who take on the Mrs. title perform a similar forfeiture, while men stay Mr., passing as unattached, the mystery of their romantic entanglements intact. The engagement ring I’ve been wearing for the past six months, though it is emphatically not a diamond one, feels like the straightest thing in my wardrobe. In some spaces—queer parties, for one—the ring makes me feel old and square in a sea of young people subverting traditional norms of genders and relationships. But in highly heterosexual settings where I don’t want to stand out, it has made me more comfortable. I used to feel out of place in barre classes, where I am usually the only person with any body hair and without any hyperfeminine flair (a full face of makeup, a bouncing ponytail, bejeweled grippy socks) in the room. Look, I now imagine my ring telling the women doing tiny leg pulses around me, I do girl things, too.

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Wife, though it will let me express my gay in a way partner and fiancée don’t, will have a similar un-queering effect. The cultural conception of the word is defined in relation to husband, making it a limiting label for straight and queer women alike. Whenever the word wife appears in idioms or pop culture, it invokes a role few feminists would want to play. The phrase wifely duties carries within it the specter of marital rape. To wife up someone is to claim possession over her, to domesticate her, to circumscribe her social and sexual interactions. Housewife reflects the subjugation of women in family life and the lack of financial and civic opportunities afforded women throughout history—and, in recent decades, it’s become a derogatory term used to diminish the value of domestic labor and the skills required to perform it. A Stepford wife serves her husband’s every need. The Good Wife stood by a narcissistic cheater after he humiliated her in front of all of Chicago. All those books titled The _____’s Wife identify women by their relationship to men, who are identified by their own respective vocations, much like the popular wedding phrase man and wife includes only one full-fledged subject.

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In that context, to call myself or my partner a wife would be to invite another, different kind of passing. I’m not sure I’m ready to set aside my internalized misogyny and reclaim a word with such heavy cultural baggage, much less pass my very queer relationship off as a normative union just like any heterosexual one, save for the two brides on top of the wedding cake. (For that matter, lesbian wedding cake toppers overwhelmingly feature two people in white dresses—an unrepresentative rendering of queer gender presentation that further illustrates my point.) LGBTQ parents—including 20 percent of lesbians in one small survey—are increasingly choosing, and sometimes inventing, labels other than mom and dad when those terms feel too heterosexual and gendered to apply. I wonder if I’ll feel more at home in a gender-neutral term like spouse (very unsexy, but no less so than wife), even if it means giving up the visibility wife could provide.

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Whenever I get caught up in a spiral of feelings about the heteronormativity of the institution my partner and I both want to make our own, I try to think back to the months when we first started dating, in 2012. She was in New York, I was in D.C., and neither of us were thinking about marriage. But if we were, we’d have had a much shorter list of potential wedding venues, because two women couldn’t marry one another in several East Coast states. Today, bakeries and florists still refuse to provide services for same-gender wedding ceremonies. And even if I wanted to, I could never marry my betrothed in a Catholic church, in the tradition of my parents and ancestors. For all the valid critiques queers make of a movement that prioritized marriage over trans rights and issues like employment and housing discrimination, gay relationships are still fraught and subversive in many spaces. So for every pang of fear of assimilation I endure, I’m trying to offer one moment of gratitude to the activists who made it possible for me to consider my supergay marriage anything but a radical affirmation of queer love.

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Lucky for me, the wedding-industrial complex doesn’t let two women forget how outside-the-norm their marriage will be. At one potential wedding space we recently saw, a refurbished barn in the Hudson Valley, we were handed a floorplan that labeled two anterooms “Bride” and “Groom.” (“Here’s where, um, one of you would get ready, and here’s where the other one of you would get ready,” the manager said.) In another context, I might have been annoyed that a business with such beautiful photos of gay weddings on its website couldn’t come up with a gender-neutral term for dressing room. But at that moment, for us, it was a welcome reminder of one of the best parts of queer marriage: There’s no blueprint. The field is wide open for us to reshape this old, sexist institution to fit our values. On the drive home to D.C., we decided to get married elsewhere. We’re not barn people, we don’t love the words bride and groom, and we’d like the option of getting ready together.

Read all of Outward’s special issue on Passing.

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