How Should Gay Couples Fend Off Pressure to Marry?
When the Supreme Court allowed same-sex marriages in
California to resume in June, my partner and I (together for nearly two decades) celebrated our
community’s long overdue equality. But it seems to have given license to everybody to start nudging us
toward the altar. I don’t go around challenging straight couples I know about when they will tie the
knot, and I’m tired of explaining my own longstanding ambivalence toward state-sanctioned marriage.
Committed partnerships can be noble, with or without government imprimatur. So how do I handle these
well-meaning but presumptuous questions about marriage (usually from straight people) without sounding
like a grump? — Name withheld, San Francisco
First of all, let me say (albeit kindly) that you do
sound like kind of a grump. But more about that shortly.
Ever since Massachusetts became the first state in the nation to legalize same-sex marriage nine years
ago, certain lesbian and gay couples have been simultaneously raising their glasses of cheer and
fending off that very same “presumptuous question.” Many more couples now find themselves facing a
similar inquisition, given the recent Supreme Court decisions widening marriage-equality rights. Way
back in 2004 the parody site The Onion greeted the news from Massachusetts with a fake news story
titled “Gay Couple Feels Pressure to Marry.” The story quoted one member of a lesbian couple whose mom
starts with pleasantries then lays on the pressure: “But then she reminded me about my dad's heart
disease and told me that he could go at any time.” The joke is not lost on those of us of the
generation that was warned our coming-out might kill our parents. Now we’re told we need to get married
before they kick the bucket? Hello, equality!
Still, this question brought a wide variety of responses on my Facebook page — with many of them
showing hints of your frostiness. “How rude. How unnecessary,” one said, adding that the pressure was
part of the “wedding industry mindset that has overtaken so many.” And this one: “Tell them bluntly …
‘We will get married when we want to — and if we want to!'”
O.K., folks, I say it’s time for a happy pill coupled with a vow of courtesy. I also know the incessant
questioning firsthand (one friend has e-mailed me every week since DOMA was dismissed with some
variation of “WHEN ARE YOU GUYS GOING TO GET MARRIED?” and, yes, she uses all caps). I try to take the
gesture for what it is — genuine happiness. So do your best to tame your inner grump and don’t
snap at those who “pop the question.” (I have no sway over your feelings, so if you must grump, do it
in the privacy of your own heart.)
If anything, try to understand the question in this light. Given the recent focus on the many benefits
of marriage that same-sex couples were being denied, it’s not surprising that many of our friends and
relatives assumed gay lovebirds would get hitched if only we could. Some long-term couples did, indeed,
race to the altar at the first possible moment. But just as not all opposite-sex couples marry, nor
will (or should) all gay couples tie the knot. There is a big difference between the right to marry and
the requirement to do so.
“Frankly, for many same-sex couples legal marriage poses a plethora of financial questions,” Sharon
Thompson, a former North Carolina legislator and lawyer specializing in L.G.B.T. family issues, wrote
in an e-mail to me. For example, some couples could be better off single if getting married would
increase their taxes or reduce alimony checks. That’s why I agree wholeheartedly with the Facebooker
who wrote: “It’s as much a victory to have the option and not use it, as it is to use it.”
But what to say to all these intrusive but well-meaning straight friends? First of all, be patient with
them; they are caught up in the moment and they are as ecstatic about these legal victories as we are.
Without the support of our allies, the marriage-equality movement and acceptance of same-sex marriage
would be nowhere near where it is today. So, please respect that support. One reader said it best when
“We are thrilled that the Supreme Court has given gay couples the options and choices that straight
couples have always enjoyed. And we so appreciate your kindness and your wanting us to be happy. We
love you and thank you for that.”
Or use your funny bone (“We’re not sure yet. It’s only been 20 years!”). Even a gentle deflection will
assuage inquiring minds (“We’re over the moon to have the choice, but for a variety of personal reasons
we’ve chosen to keep our legal status as is for now”).
Let me close with a vignette about Larry Kramer, the playwright and longtime gay rights advocate, and
his partner of nearly 20 years, David Webster, an architect. For years Mr. Kramer was dismissive of
state laws that allowed same-sex marriages while DOMA remained intact, calling those unions “feel-good
marriages” because they did not convey any of the federal benefits of marriage.
With DOMA struck down, Mr. Kramer, 78, decided to marry Mr. Webster, 66, and did so in the I.C.U. at
N.Y.U. Langone Medical Center late last month. But not without a dollop of his usual feistiness: “[T]
hey gave us what we deserved, but they kept back some really important stuff. So, I’m not going,
‘Glory, hallelujah,’ like everybody is,” Mr. Kramer said of the Supreme Court rulings in an interview
with Parade Still, he added: “I was terrified that I’d die and David would have to give so much money
to the government from our house that he wouldn’t have any money left.”
Mazel tov, gentlemen. And unto each his own.
Originally published in The New York Times, August 6, 2013