She asked, “How many in your party?” and I said, “Four. My partner is parking the car.” I stood with an arm around each of my children as the hostess gathered menus and my son, who was 12 at the time, said, “Mama, why do you still say ‘partner’? Why don’t you use the word ‘wife’?” With the hostess hovering and the restaurant din at high levels, I was tempted to answer with “It’s complicated” – parental code words for “You are too young to understand” or “I don’t want to talk about it.” But the truth came before I could stop it, “That word does not belong to me.”
In May of 2013, the Minnesota Senate passed the bill that brought marriage equality to Minnesota. I was at the capitol that day with my children because I wanted them to see history being made. We stood together in the rotunda surrounded by thousands of people and with every chant, cheer and song, I fought back tears because, when I came out in 1990 at the age of 21, I never imagined that I might someday be able to legally marry my partner. It’s frightening how easy it is to learn to live with inequality, to accept life as an outsider. I had accepted that our commitment ceremony in 2000 wasn’t legally recognized. I had accepted that we had to find ways to protect ourselves legally, to go beyond what any heterosexual couple in a long-term relationship had to do and I was thankful for the legal protections we had. But that day at the capitol, I listened as the senate voted and granted me entrance into the institution of marriage.
That night, I sat down at my computer to read reactions to the news. I logged onto Facebook and my timeline was filled with my LGBT friends changing their relationship statuses -- an endless stream of the words “engaged” and “fiancé” and “fiancée” and I thought, “We are doing that?” I planned to marry my partner, Luisa, but it had never occurred to me to use those words.
In the months that followed, I found it easy to tell people that we were getting married but I struggled when it came to talking about the wedding itself, forever fighting the urge to put quotation marks around the word. When the day finally arrived, we stood before our friends and family and exchanged vows much as we had done years ago. The difference was that this particular exchange gave our relationships legal recognition.
A couple of months later, I had to have outpatient surgery and a nurse with a blank expression droned on, “Name? Date of birth? Employer? Insurance provider?” and then she asked if Luisa was still my emergency contact. I said she was and said causally, “We just got married in October.” She gasped, clapped her hands together, smiled and said, “Well that changes everything!” and proceeded to change the information in the system. I felt this strange urge to stop her, to ask her to leave things as they were, as if changing my file invalidated the 20 years that came before this legal recognition. I wanted to say, “It changes everything and nothing at all.” But, I sat there quietly while she deleted and typed and made Luisa my wife.
Language is one of the foundations of identity, our primary tool in defining our experience. For most of my life, the language of marriage was not mine. Even now, as a legally married woman, the words feel as strange on my tongue as any foreign language. My generation is the last one for which this will be true. When my children are grown, they may not remember a time when same-sex marriage was not legal and there will be no divide in the language couples use to define themselves and their relationships. The shift is already happening. I see young LGBT couples using fiancé and fiancée and talking about their engagements, using husband and wife as they talk about their weddings. And there is my own son who wonders why I don’t call his other mother my wife.
I will never have the cultural competency and fluency of those younger than me, of those who have always had the right to marry. I will always feel like an outsider -- a married woman using the word “partner,” forever speaking the language of marriage with an accent.
PHOTO CREDIT: VIKKI REICH