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Why Do "I

Why Do "I


Poet and memoirist Mark Doty didn't want to marry his partner. Sure, they were in love and there were benefits to be had, but Doty was afraid that legal recognition might change his relationship. Then he realized that it's the other way around: that his union, and others like it, will likely change the institution of marriage -- forever.

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I never had the least desire to get married. Since neither church nor state had ever been, to put it mildly, supportive of my relationships, why on earth should I want them involved? Like many gay men, I relished the sense of freedom and improvisation that came from not having my relationship defined from the outside. No scripted expectations, no predetermined path. Wasn't it invigorating, and didn't it somehow feel more alive that way?

So it was with a certain degree of surprise that I found myself looking at the sweet flood of news pictures from San Francisco, during the first flourish of same-sex weddings there, and feeling -- well, sweet. Handsome young guys holding each other and weeping. Tender, mature women who'd been together for years embracing with confidence and delight. Who could look at these images and not be moved? It's the pleasure of seeing our relationships honored in the public arena, seeing these loving couples validated by their inclusion in the daily news, after our long histories of erasure. Still, I thought, it's not what I really want for myself.

Then I got a new job, in an academic community whose values are progressive and humane, and for the first time in my working life I was offered same-sex partner benefits. The only catch: We needed to have a legally recognized relationship.

Let me be perfectly clear: If I were going to marry anybody, I'd marry Paul. In a practical sense, I already had. We've been together for 13 years; our lives and work are intertwined. We know all the same people. We share a long, elaborate frame of reference, a mutual history. I am no longer at all clear who I'd be if he wasn't around. Not to mention the fact that he is smart, devilishly handsome, an entertaining companion, funny, loyal to a fault, and a wonderful writer. He's an excellent travel companion, likes people and animals, and has eyes of a startling beauty and clarity -- as if you can simply look right down into him, when you are so inclined. But what would we gain by getting married? What would be any different, other than my job benefits?

We checked into domestic-partnership registration, only to learn that in New York City, where we live, putting our relationship on the books wouldn't provide us with much. The major benefit: If one of us were incarcerated, the other would be allowed to visit. Paul gets a bit wild, but I don't think Rikers Island is in his future. Marriage was clearly the way to go, especially since New York's bold new governor has decreed that our state will recognize same-sex marriages sealed in California, and now, it seems, those from Massachusetts too.

But did we really want to participate in this dusty old institution, with its oppressive history and its hidebound conventions? I feared that marriage would define us, and not the other way around.

And that's what I've come to reconsider.

What about the history of bohemian love, the kinds of relationships that queer people have been making forever? Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson, Virginia and Leonard Woolf, Jean Cocteau and Jean Marais, the poet Thom Gunn and his houseful of committed partners -- well, what we've always been is inventive, resourceful, and alive to the many ways it's possible to be together, to make a life.

Why should marriage mean marriage their way? For one thing, as soon as both partners are of the same sex, the familiar power dynamics of heterosexual tradition are out the window. Do you conduct your life the way your grandmother did, or her parents? Then why imitate their marriage?

What marriage is yours for the defining. If you want a cozy domestic scene, monogamous and settled in together, go for it. Want to commit to one another but live in adjoining houses, like Frida and Diego, or in apartments on two different sides of town, or in different cities altogether? Want to keep the doors open to sexual fluidity, improvisation, and freedom? It's your marriage. Rather than making one feel like a conformist, marriage might actually make you more subversive. Remember how the Right used to like to say that same-sex marriage was a "threat" to traditional marriage? What if it turns out they're right, in that gay and lesbian couples wind up making marriage a healthier, more surprising and various thing?

It's exciting to contemplate our freedom to define things for ourselves. More and more Americans think same-sex marriage is no big deal, and surely there's been no more visible sign of that than the recent cover of People. Ellen DeGeneres and Portia de Rossi, radiant in their wedding off-whites, represent thousands of couples who'll never be as publicly visible.

I decided to ask Jess Cagle, executive editor of People, a few questions about his magazine's splashy wedding cover. I told him that I was impressed that the magazine -- one of the largest mass-circulation publications in the world -- highlighted the rings, cake, and flowers, and the emotional and intimate nature of the ceremony, and seemed to make no big deal about the couple's gender at all.

"From the minute I heard they were getting married," Jess answered, "I wanted to see a People wedding cover that treated them like any other couple -- just a celebration of their marriage. The surprising thing to me was, all of my colleagues saw it the same way from the very beginning. When laying it out, when writing the story, when writing cover lines, when choosing photos, we never talked about the historic nature of what we were doing. And yet we were making history, thanks to Ellen and Portia. As a magazine editor and a gay man, I'm really grateful to have been a part of it."

I wanted to hear more about that "making history" part, so I asked Cagle if he felt the magazine cover spoke to how far gay and lesbian relationships have come, and to changing times.

"The summer I turned 4, the Stonewall riots occurred," he told me. "This summer I turned 43 and put a gay wedding on the cover of People -- not to make a statement or change the world, but because we think it will sell well on newsstands."

Did that mean that the magazine was opening doors?

"Now that People has treated a gay wedding like any other wedding," Jess said, "the rest of the media will feel safer doing the same thing, which is great."

And that seems to have been just the case. I could find only one negative instance: when CNN International reported on its website that DeGeneres and de Rossi had married, and placed the verb in quotes -- as if theirs couldn't possibly be a real marriage. But even that was quickly corrected after a watchful reader called the news organization on its gaffe.

Jess Cagle -- who by this point, I think, is a major sweetheart and a friend to us all -- added, "This cover will be inspiring to gays and lesbians considering marriage and inspiring to kids struggling with their sexuality. But I also think a lot about children of same-sex couples, and what this cover will mean to them... Also, Ellen and Portia have made it OK to have a vegan red velvet wedding cake."

So, just last week Paul and I picked up our marriage license at the town clerk's office in Truro, Mass. The woman who helped us -- the very soul of New England, hair in a firm white bun, her face a scrubbed pink, was very earnest until Paul realized he'd forgotten to check the box for "sex" and made a little joke, to which she added dryly, "Well, I wasn't going to say anything."

The next morning we met Alison Hyder, a Unitarian minister from Provincetown, at the rim of a salt marsh that opens out onto Cape Cod Bay, a place of light and green and endless rippling water. It was just the three of us. I knew Paul had picked a passage from Whitman, but I didn't know which one. "Listen!" he read, "I do not offer the old smooth prizes, but offer rough new prizes.... Will you give me yourself? Will you come travel with me? Shall we stick by each other as long as we live?"

I had long since dissolved into tears before he got to the end of those lines. The only thing that got me to stop crying were the vows, which struck me as funny and formal. I had to compose myself to get through "Paul, I accept you as my husband."

Then came Alison's wonderful pronouncement: "Seeing as you are bound and determined to do this crazy, profound, and beautiful thing...I now pronounce you...a married couple."

And that is what we're all doing here, a crazy, profound, and beautiful thing. I couldn't have said it better.

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Why Do "I

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