“Do you take Fran to be your lawfully wedded wife, in sickness and in health, until death do you part?” The mayor smiles as he asks me. I am radiant, wearing my mother’s wedding gown for the fifth and final time. I am pleased to be able to still squeeze into it after all these years and a pregnancy.
“I DO!” I proudly answer. It has been a long road to get here, but marriage equality has finally arrived in Colorado.
I have married Fran nine times; that is, there have been nine, formal, witnessed events that affirmed our commitment to each other: Buying our house together as non-married persons, estate planning with our lawyer, our religious wedding, legally changing my last name to Fran’s, everything legal involved with having a child together as non-married persons of the same sex, registering at the County Clerk’s office as “Designated Beneficiaries”, getting a civil union, and then officially married twice. Had it been available to us, a single wedding with marriage license would have sufficed, saving us literally thousands of dollars and carrying more protections than the entire patchwork of legal documents we have amassed.
Fran and I had our first wedding in 2005, two years before the birth of our son. At the time, I was surprised how many of the 100 attendees that summer morning seemed shocked to learn from the rabbi’s sermon that we had no rights as a couple whatsoever, and that our formal ceremony that day did nothing to change that.
Around that time, Fran and I discussed what language we would use to refer to each other. When I cautiously asked what she thought about “wife”, Fran made a face. “No way. Sounds… just wrong. Please don’t call me that. Besides, we aren’t actually married, not according to the law.”
And so it was decided we would say “partners”, but it made me feel sad. As patriarchal and baggage-filled the word “wife” is, I had grown up assuming I would become one some day. The truth is, both Fran and I are really quite conservative. Some would call that ironic, given that we are lesbians and from dyed-in-the-blue Democrat families, but despite assumptions of what that may mean to some people, traditions and values are very important to both of us. It is one of the reasons why we wanted to have a wedding before we had children. It’s simply what you do. We didn’t choose to be lesbians, but we do choose to be honest, both with ourselves and others about who we are. And that meant pledging to each other, our families and community that we were committed to each other for life.
Occasionally, as the years passed, a friend or family member would refer to Fran or me as the other’s “wife”, which always gave me a little thrill of normalcy I usually deny caring much about. But the fact remained that calling her my partner lumped us with lots of pairings that weren’t equal in heft, including business partners, and lovers who had no assumptions about spending their old age together.
Still, I hesitated using the word ‘wife’ myself, so used to the genderless language of ‘partner’ and ‘spouse’. This avoidance caused many problems, as the person I was talking to had to guess its meaning, and was usually wrong.
Picture an intake nurse, looking at computer screen: “Married or single?”
Me, pausing: “Um, I have a partner”
Nurse: “And what does he do?”
Me: “She is an analytics consultant”
Nurse: “Oh! I’m sorry!”
I have had hundreds of similar conversations, frustrated by people feeling they must apologize when I tell them the gender of my spouse. Being able to comfortably refer to my wife would eliminate this problem, but this is not the reason that I started using the “w” word. It was because of our son.
When the first civil unions bill was introduced to the Colorado legislature, Fran and I were there to testify, speak at rallies, and be interviewed by the media. Because of the exposure, our son heard lots of talk about what marriage is. Needless to say, it was quite confusing; our house has at least a dozen framed photos from our wedding in 2005, and of course our son and his friends see us as no different from any other set of parents. Jeremy came home saying that so-and-so was telling another classmate that Jeremy’s parents were fighting for the right to get married- but weren’t we married already? And he thought that we were fighting for a civil union? What is a civil union?
It was then that we realized that our second-class status in the law was already impacting our son. We didn’t want him to internalize any concept that we were lesser than, even if the state disagreed.
May 1st 2013, just moments after the stroke of midnight, we were the first couple to receive a civil union in the state of Colorado, officiated by Mayor Michael Hancock with Rabbi Stephen Booth-Nadav. My mother had flown in for it, and we both wore our gowns. Despite how late it was, hundreds of couples seeking civil unions, every news outlet, and a crowd of supporters showed up. It was a triumphant occasion.
After that, we agreed to start using the word “wife” to refer to each other. And yet, I still felt like a fraud. Civil unions do not have the legal equivalence to marriage, nor the social history or meaning. We weren’t done, and I told reporters that we hoped to put on the wedding gown one final time.
Many of our friends were travelling out of state to where there was marriage, and we were frequently asked why we didn’t do the same. Our answer was always the same: legally it would be meaningless, since the marriage would not be recognized in the state we called home. Furthermore, why should we travel hundreds of miles to perform a basic civil function? Would anyone ask a heterosexual couple that question? It was a question of dignity.
During the following year, there was the cascade of rulings in one court after another throughout the country, affirming again and again that denying the basic right to marry was not constitutional. We rallied at the federal courthouse in Denver when the appellate ruling for the Utah case was about to be heard; I was afraid to hope that those conservative justices would rule in our favor. And yet, Dr. King’s adage proved to be true: the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice. And so it did, again and again.
On July 9, a judge in state court issued a ruling that Colorado’s marriage ban was unconstitutional. We woke up the next day to a flurry of calls and emails asking if we had seen the tweet from the Denver County Clerk, Deborah Johnson: she would join the Boulder County Clerk in issuing marriage licenses. We quickly showered and headed downtown with our son, now 6. We were the first couple to be married in Denver. As we stood at the counter among a handful of reporters and Clerk’s office staff, our son declared, “I want to be the ring barrier!” to which Councilman Chris Nevitt (who had come down from his office to witness) corrected, “No, the ring barrier has been broken!” The occasion was happy, but a bit anti-climatic. I had imagined getting into my dress again and having more people present who were close to us.
But, the journey wasn’t over. The 10th Circuit Court ruling was immediately appealed, and a stay was put on the county clerks to prevent them from issuing more licenses. “Congratulations!” alternated with “Are you really married?” in conversations with neighbors and friends during those weeks waiting to hear what the U.S. Supreme Court would do. When it was announced that they would not hear any of the Circuit Court appeals, thereby allowing those pro-marriage equality decisions to stand, I both celebrated and mourned that the country would soon have equality in 30 of 50 states. Further, Colorado’s conservative attorney general John Suthers was saying that the licenses issued before the stay (including ours) may not be valid. We were in legal limbo. Saying “wife” still felt like playing pretend.
I had hope when we received an invitation to be married by the Mayor and to be issued another marriage license that this would finally feel like the real thing. Although we only had two hours warning, I pulled out my gown and Fran ran to get her hair done. When she showed up at Jeremy’s school to get him, he sighed, “Ugh, again?!?” but soon got into the spirit, insisting on bringing his violin and practicing writing his name for his duty as witness.
When I heard the words, “By the power vested in me, I now pronounce you married,” a weight was lifted. Jeremy finally has indisputably wedded parents. Fran is my wife and I am hers. And together we will watch the arc of the moral universe, joining our voices to the countless others who will not rest until full equality is won.