Last week I received an e-mail asking if I would be willing to speak at a "Vote No!" event organized by students at the college where I teach. The event would feature performances by the Twin Cities Gay Men's Chorus.
I decided it might be helpful to mention in my response that my significant other sings in the chorus. In my reply, I confronted, once again, the all-too-familiar need to describe for someone else my relationship to this indispensable person in my life. This calculation has become so frequent that I perform it almost automatically now. In a routine 10 seconds or less, I try to gauge how this third party might react if I were to refer to Eric as my significant other, my partner or my husband. In other words, I often think about what marriage means to others in order to explain our relationship for them.
I usually end up opting for the word "partner." It seems to be easier for most to digest, and I'm not always up for challenging someone else's notion of what the word "husband" can mean. I'm not proud of this concession. It simply doesn't do justice to our commitment. It's not what marriage means to me.
"This is my partner," I say. "Oh, what kind of business are you in?" some respond. This is usually followed by a moment of awkward silence, the sound of crickets, perhaps a few tumbleweeds, until the woman's husband or the man's wife elbows her or him and mumbles some sort of explanation.
They aren't the only ones confused. When Eric and I first approached this great commitment, we thought about the what-ifs: What if one of us gets sick? What if one of us dies? What would happen to our home? Who would make decisions about our well-being? Would we have the right to see each other in the hospital? These questions weren't new to either of us, but finding solutions was no longer a distant eventuality. The challenges continued to exist, and we needed to face them with the tools at hand. We needed to put in writing what marriage means to us.
As with many couples planning a life together, we looked for ways to care for the other should anything happen to one of us. Most important was making sure that the home we would make together would continue to shelter the one who remained. In North Carolina, where we lived at the time, our best recourse was to draft wills. Since those could still be contested, we would supplement them with one of the strongest legal documents available for the linkage of two men: a business partnership agreement. The lawyer's first draft listed Eric as the sole managing partner. This was not what marriage means to me.
What marriage does mean to me can be expressed by a series of words that exist beautifully outside of gender: words like family, companionship, encouragement, compromise and love. The essence of our marriage goes beyond the physical; it is a spiritual commitment. It is the hours spent at the hospital waiting to welcome jointly a new niece who brightens our world. It is the sharing of grief when a father slowly loses his memory. It is the cultivation of a life together, with all its ups and downs.
Fellow Minnesotans, I urge you to consider the personal impact this amendment will have on our families, friends, neighbors and future generations.
Jonathan O'Conner, of Minneapolis, is a Spanish professor. To read more marriage amendment commentaries, go here.