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A
Transcontinental Affair

A
            Transcontinental Affair

I was not the one
who wanted to get married. John Habich, my partner
since the summer of 2001, had brought up a commitment
ceremony from time to time, but without legal meaning,
the whole idea felt like a sham to me. Our families,
colleagues, and widely dispersed friends all knew that
we planned to spend the rest of our lives together; I
wasn’t sure that any purpose was served in
making them gather at an inconvenient location in
further recognition of our affection. But John saw a
ceremony in personal rather than political terms and
fantasized about the gratification to be had by
pledging our troth publicly before our chosen
community, whether or not any civil rights were attached. I
believe fervently in partnership parity for gay and
straight couples, and holding a ceremony without such
equality had for me the taint of giving in --
virtually consenting to prejudice in a smiling
submissiveness worthy of Uncle Tom. We could get
married, I thought, if and when we could really
get married.

The matter
hovered in a state of suspended indecision until the United
Kingdom passed the Civil Partnership Act, which went into
effect in late 2005. It grants same-sex couples all
the rights associated with marriage, with two notable
exceptions: It is not legally called marriage, and it
cannot be conferred by a member of the clergy. These
provisos notwithstanding, everyone calls it marriage,
and many people annex a religious blessing to the
registrar’s official proclamation. Since I am a
dual national with British as well as American citizenship,
our marriage under the new law would offer real
meaning. Among other rights, it would entitle John to
residence in the United Kingdom and ultimately to British
citizenship. If we ever decided to give up our U.S.
citizenship, we would not have to pay inheritance tax
on each other’s estate. We would be
automatically recognized as next of kin in any medical
emergency. I wish the ceremony were called marriage,
but as a nationally acknowledged set of protections,
it gratified my yen for meaningful social progress.

So we decided in
mid 2006 to marry in England the following summer, when
our friends could bring their children. It was surprising
how many people asked why we hadn’t just gone
to Massachusetts instead. I explained that, quite
apart from the fact that we don’t live or own
property there, marriage is a national institution,
and that what we were going to do in England had
meaning in that entire sovereign nation. While Massachusetts
marriages came with some rights, they wouldn’t have
any weight in the most crucial areas of the law --
never mind that our home base is New York.

John had to apply
for a partnership visa through the British consulate in
New York, and the mere fact of having to assemble forms and
documents gave our preparations an aura of solemnity.
Then we traveled to England to meet with the registrar
in the county where we planned to hold our ceremony. I
entered the United Kingdom on the fast line with my British
passport, while John stood in the slow line with his U.S.
documents. When he was asked the purpose of his trip,
he said he had come to get married to me, and he
showed the border agent his new civil partnership visa.
“Congratulations,” the agent said.
“Good luck to you both.”

A few days later
we met with the registrar for the borough of
Northampton, a stern-looking woman of a certain age. As we
waited in the ornate old town hall, we perused
pamphlets about the civil partnership legislation,
which not only listed our rights but also suggested readings
from W.H. Auden and other poets of same-sex love. Then each
of us met separately with the registrar, Pam Allen,
who asked us a fusillade of questions to determine
that this was not the equivalent of a green-card ploy.
When she was satisfied that it wasn’t, she brought us
into her office together to sign the necessary
documents and discuss the shape of the ceremony.

Having been
briskly efficient thus far, Mrs. Allen suddenly leaned
across her desk. “You know,” she said,
“I believe this should have been made legal
long ago. And I want you to know that since the law passed,
I have met the most interesting people of all my years
as a civil servant. It has given me tremendous
pleasure to be part of it, and I wish you both every
happiness.”

On June 30, 2007,
John and I tied the knot in front of about 300 family
and friends at Althorp, the ancestral home of the Spencer
family. We went the whole nine yards, with a cocktail
party thrown by friends in London on Thursday, a
rehearsal dinner at Althorp on Friday, the wedding late
Saturday afternoon followed by dinner, dancing, and
fireworks, and a farewell picnic on Sunday. The whole
series of events knit the pleasures of social position
with those of social justice. We had a magnificent
party and broke some political ground in the process. Allen
performed the civil ceremony, immediately after which
the Reverend Peter Gomes of Harvard’s Memorial
Church led a Christian service with the exchange of
rings and a blessing of families that specifically included
those with two moms or two dads. After sunset,
Baroness Neuberger DBE, a rabbi who is a friend and
who had commissioned the first official U.K. religious
service for same-sex unions, performed a Jewish liturgy, so
acknowledging my own family heritage.

We had almost 50
guests under 18, and for them the occasion didn’t
seem that unusual. It was the first wedding that many
of them had ever attended. One family had been asked
by the border agent upon arrival for the purpose of
their visit. They said that they were attending a wedding,
and their effusive 5- and 7-year-old sons shouted,
“Andrew and John are getting married!”
The agent replied, “That sounds wonderful, and I hope
you all enjoy every minute of it.”

It was quite a
different experience when we returned from our honeymoon
in Tanzania, though. At the passport-control booth at JFK, a
man with a Homeland Security badge inquired as to the
reason for my trip. Tired after the long flight,
standing there in the harsh fluorescent lighting, I
realized I couldn’t comfortably tell him. There was
no expectation of approbation -- and I didn’t
want him to write something on my customs form that
would give me trouble when I tried to exit baggage claim (or
put a note in the computer system that would shadow me for
years to come). If I explained that my purpose was a
marriage that had to occur outside the United States,
I was inviting trouble. In the box beside
“Number of family members traveling with you,”
I had written “0.” My left hand was on
the counter, my wedding ring was glinting, but I said,
“I’m a travel writer; I was on
assignment.” The agent stamped my documents, and
I went to look for my suitcase.

I hope John and I
live in this country always, but I am glad to have the
option of moving to Great Britain in case the vast,
punishing, conservative exclusionism that rules the
United States today gets even worse. As John and I
grow old and possibly infirm, it may make sense to
give up citizenship in order to preserve what resources we
have shepherded together. Our wedding was cause for
pageantry and celebration, but tinged with sorrow that
our new legal rights would mean nothing in our native
land. At one level, it was all about the happiness of John
and me, and our fantastically supportive friends and
families. But to a greater degree than I had expected,
it was also about the border agents in London with
their warm wishes, the registrar with her startling
enthusiasm -- and, then, about the American customs agent to
whom I couldn’t announce the real reason for
our voyage.

How we love
achieves an additional layer of dignity when it is
recognized, and coming home to America felt like entering a
kind of closet. I’m too old and have fought for
too long to be back there. Though I knew my response
to the customs agent at JFK was arguably prudent, it
left me disgusted -- with him, with the country, and with
myself for continuing to live under these
circumstances. The honeymoon was over.

Tags: World, World

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