Marriage equality is sweeping the nation. This week, gay and lesbian couples began getting married in Alabama, and this summer, the Supreme Court is poised to overturn all state same-sex marriage bans. It's progress not only of the legal treatment for same-sex couples but also of societal approval. Public support for same-sex marriage in America is at a all-time high.
But while the media snaps happy photos of couples at city halls across the nation, the process through which these couples get there isn't necessarily so simple. The decision to get married as a gay or lesbian couple, with marriage being a new tradition to the LGBT community, prompts introspection and exploration into the value and purpose of marriage itself.
It also requires a re-examination of wedding rituals, such as engagement rings. Forget straight peoples' inquisitiveness about who proposes and who gets the ring — even LGBT couples aren't sure what to do. Figuring that out, as I learned recently, means figuring out what marriage can really mean to a couple.
I got engaged last week. I proposed to my girlfriend of one year a few months ago, on our anniversary. (Yes, we did it during "engagement season.") Like many gay and straight couples, we had discussed our beliefs about marriage, from its political necessity to our individual feelings on commitment, and not because we're stereotypical U-Haul lesbians. (We're not.) A relationship is made and sustained on shared values, and importantly, marriage hadn't always been something I felt had value to me.
I was two years out of college when Massachusetts welcomed same-sex marriage in 2004. I never thought I'd get married. At that time, like so many 20-somethings, I embraced a queer identity and the politics and social views that went with it. Like so many other queer-identified people, I was blatantly hostile about marriage. Eff that shit! Down with the patriarchy!
Then my two mentors, a lesbian professor couple at Harvard, got married. They were in their late 50s at the time; one was terminally ill, and they needed the legal protections. Through them I began to see not only the personal benefits of marriage, but its necessity for one's security.
I didn't fully swing around to marriage until a few years ago, after the Supreme Court verdict overturned the Defense of Marriage Act. By that time, I had been working in LGBT media for nearly seven years and had heard every side of the argument — and that included loud opposition to marriage. But I was tired of a queer identity characterized by the refusal of everything. Queer identity, similar to particular strands of old-school feminism, often seems comfortable being both impoverished and plaintive at the margins. I didn't want to be either.
Furthermore, as more and more gay and lesbian couples married, I was beginning to witness firsthand how marriage was lived differently, uniquely and positively, on a couple-by-couple basis. Gay and lesbian friends of mine were getting married their own way, personalizing their marriages to meet their sexual, physical and emotional needs. That's included an egalitarian approach, influenced by feminism; to my mind, it's gays and lesbians who have modernized the institution.
My fiancée also began to see marriage's value as it emerged in real time. Growing up in the 1970s in Australia, she never thought of marriage as an option, therefore the dream never entered her psyche. But as a figurehead in LGBT media for the past 15 years, her views evolved as marriage equality became a reality for the community.
We've won the right — now what about the traditions? Marriage for the gay and lesbian community is only a decade old. We are still building our traditions, borrowing from society's conception of marriage and taking inspiration from the ethics and spirit of queer culture.
Once my fiancée and I got together, we were certain about marriage as a goal: Both of us agreed marriage equality was a political imperative for our community. It wasn't about assimilation so much as what assimilation afforded: the oft-cited "1,138 benefits, rights and protections" denied to gay and lesbian couples that are bestowed to married straight couples.
This was especially important to us as a binational couple. Marriage, thanks largely to initiatives signed into law by President Barack Obama, allows both of us to feel secure in our citizen status without daily anxiety over the possibility of deportation.
But when it came to getting engaged and buying a ring, we had to confront the practical realities of "getting married" by society's standards. I didn't know what the hell to do; I just wanted to marry her. But the act of proposing, so rooted in traditional heterosexual roles, felt daunting. I wanted to get her a ring, but the meaning was rife with patriarchal notions of female-ownership.
Part of the difficulty of relying on tradition is that even if you make something your own, the outside world may still interpret it otherwise. When it comes to an engagement ring, for example, I could feel that — in its design, metal and jewel choice — it's a sign of eternal commitment, while others may read it as possession of my significant other.
Because it felt awkward and inauthentic for our relationship to make a decision about rings without her, I proposed with a placement ring (the inadequacy of which I kept apologizing for throughout my rambling proposal). Then we set out to find engagement rings for both of us. She called up friend and gay jeweler Rony Tennenbaum, who has been making rings for the LGBT community for nearly two decades. He has witnessed the evolution of marriage equality in its entirety, from long-standing couples who finally have the opportunity to marry after 40 years together, to younger couples who want to approach the engagement process differently.
Having Tennenbaum coach us through the process of understanding how our beliefs could be embodied in our rings, was invaluable. We decided on matching rose gold bands with a solitaire diamond that would function as both an engagement and wedding ring — two things neither of us envisioned.
The next step, as for any couple, was the announcement. As both of us work in media (she is the Editor-in-Chief of Curve Magazine), we knew our engagement would spark reaction from both the straight and queer worlds. We told the people closest to us first before telling the world through social media. Most of the LGBT community was supportive; the staunch queers within our circles remained noticeably silent.
Straight people resoundingly asked the same thing: "How did it happen?" After all, when it comes to a gay or lesbian couple, it's not obvious who proposes or who gets the ring. Posting a photo of our matching accessories answered the latter question; the former, over who proposed, is still confusing to many people. This, I think, was particularly our experience as two femme women — who proposes if there is no man or masculine person to take the lead? The answer: Whoever feels so compelled, based on each couple's dynamic.
As we proceed through the engagement, we are discussing how to make other parts uniquely meaningful. Part of the meaning of marriage for us, particularly the element that involves our role as a married couple in society, comes from tradition. But as a lesbian couple, deliberation over the process has required examination of each one of those traditions, from the rings to the vows to the ceremony. It is a complicated teasing out of individual desires, politics and symbolism, all helping to evaluate what both the wedding and marriage should represent to us.
A "perfect" marriage reflects the couple: Our process has been telling. The beauty of marriage equality is not only that it's brought equal treatment and respect to Americans who deserve it. It has also enabled all couples, gay and straight, to evaluate what the traditions and expectations around marriage really mean to them. Some elements might feel too patriarchal, or too institutional, or simply inapplicable in our modern everyday lives. Some traditions might perfectly capture the essence of a modern couple's bond. Either way, the decision becomes theirs.