by: Anna Cook
Why is marrying my partner so important tome? It’s a question I imagine most queer folk on the brink of getting hitched ask themselves.
When the act you’re about to undertake is a matter of political debate at the national and international level — when grown men and women freak the fuck out over the mere idea of two persons doing what you’re about to commit – it’s bound to make you reflect on your own decision-making process. Or maybe my reflections are prompted by the feminist part of my brain – the part that challenges me to recognize the politically-charged aspects of our personal lives, and the intimately personal landscape of our own political involvement. Too, it could be the historian in me, always attending to the meaning-making activities of humanity, hoping to better understand historical contingency.
If you had asked me five years ago — a twentysomething of uncertain sexual desires and a sexual relationship history of zero – the probability I’d be tying the knot in 2012, I probably would have told you pretty damn low. At the time, a single gal bound for graduate school, I saw the most likely future that of confirmed spinster (in the most fulfilling, joyful sense of the word) or communard (possibly combined with spinster). While I always strive to keep an open mind about future possibilities, marriage was not an item on my life’s agenda.
Yet neither was it on my anti-agenda. While I dislike the limited forms of marriage our society deems fit to recognize, I also believe in the emotive and social power of naming one’s commitments before witnesses. And I had my parents’ successful partnership as a model for how marriage was a form capable of holding love, companionship, and family in a shape both socially legible and quietly non-conformist. Because of my parents’ example, and because I know how the meaning of marriage has changed over time, I don’t view it as an irredeemably heteronormative, patriarchal institution.
In my view, marriage can contain a multitude of wonderfully radical sins.
When Future Wife and I became a couple, I surprised myself with the strength and fierceness of my pride at having her visibly in my life, as my girlfriend. I’m not sure what I’d expected, prior to falling in love – but whatever my expectations I know I didn’t anticipate my overwhelming desire to kiss in public, to hold hands, slide my hand in the back pocket of her jeans, to signal in dozens of physical ways: “This woman is mine”; the overwhelming desire for her to kiss, hold, grope, and otherwise claim me right back.
I’ve learned that being public about our relationship matters to me. That naming has power. I relish naming her my girlfriend my partner my future wife in conversation with others. I want (need?) everyone to know we are a social unit, and exactly what kind of unit we are.
It matters to me that bystanders be in no doubt that we are in each other’s pants on a regular basis, thank you very much, and they will just have to deal. Because the public sphere is mine as much as theirs, and I’m not backing down from making promises to be and to have before witnesses. By just being who we are, building a life together, we change the meaning of marriage – I believe for the better. And that’s an act to be proud of.
So as a queer feminist and historian, I see marrying my fianceé as both an intensely personal act of commitment and also a deeply political act: inventing the future we’re hoping for. Becoming Future Wife’s Wife is a material statement that we have the right to act on our desires, to form families that work for us, and to name our relationships with the rich weight of history behind us, if that language is that feels right to us.
I know some queer folks will disagree with me on this point, and that’s okay. I don’t believe that a marriage is inherently better than any other type of relationship, and I will continue to advocate for society to honoring of other relationship types. Yet I don’t think the viability of other options alongside marriage render marriage – with all of its historic and social resonance – outmoded, passé. Perhaps it’s the historian in me, as well as the feminist, who enjoys the project of taking an act rich in historical, religious, and social meaning, and re-interpreting it for present-day use.
If I were engaged to a man, I suspect marriage on our own terms would feel like more work: as a hetero couple we’d be pushing constantly against a tidal wave of gendered expectations. As it is, society isn’t pressuring Future Wife and I to marry. Instead, our marriage feels like a fierce act, a defiant gesture – a claiming of public ground that hetero couples often take for granted. As E.J. Graff recently wrote at The American Prospect, gay and lesbian marriage can be construed as assimilation to the dominant norm – or as the next step in an ongoing revolution in how humanity organizes intimate lives. Hetero couples who refuse to let marriage be defined for them, instead using it as a space to invent partnerships on their own terms, are co-conspirators in this same heady project of re-vision and re-formation.
Our lives exist in a constant state of dialogue between social legibility and personal meaning: We use the language available to us to make meaning of our own lives, and draw upon our personal experience to create new language for new ways of being. I see the socially-legible framework of “marriage” as a space in which to make meaning for my own life – and also remind the world that all such frameworks are, ultimately, smaller than the infinite variety of humanity which they attempt to contain.
Anna J. Cook recently entered her thirties, an age she’s aspired to most of her sentient life. She is a queer feminist, historian, librarian, and writer who lives in the Boston metropolitan area with her partner, two cats, and a multitude of houseplants. She grew up the daughter of quiet leftist radicals in a conservative corner of West Michigan and before moving to Boston spent time in Oregon, Missouri, Indiana and Aberdeen, Scotland. Her hopes for the next thirty years include marrying her girlfriend, returning to the British Isles, starting a housing co-operative, training gnomes to brew and deliver coffee to her desk via pneumatic tube, and making headway on her “books to read” list. She can be found most reliably at the feminist librarian.