Sunday, December 2, 2012

A husband by any other name

Two days ago I received a call from Roger, a junior high school classmate from Cuba who lives in central Florida with George, his companion of about forty years.

I haven't seen Roger, whom I knew as Rogelio in Cuba, for about fifty years, but I remember him vividly because I had no small crush on him. He was the tallest guy in the class, with the dark good looks of a Latin matinee idol. In class pictures, when we were lined up according to size, Rogelio always ended in the middle of the last row, towering regally over his classmates, with me a couple of places to the left or right of him.

Roger's phone call didn't bring good news. He spoke nervously and quickly in Spanish, stumbling over the medical terms necessary to describe George's condition, who has been very ill for the past several weeks. The Spanish equivalents of "lymphatic cancer," "perforation of the intestine," "colonoscopy," "chemotherapy" and so on didn't come easily to me either.

As I tried to comfort Roger, I struggled momentarily with what to call George, whom I've never met. Is he Roger's partner? boyfriend? companion? roommate? lover? Instinctively, I reached for "husband," which also caused Roger to pause awkwardly for a split-second, as if he'd never thought of the term before.

But what else should one man call another with whom he's lived the greatest part of his life, and who now may be close to dying, if not "husband"? Particularly at this moment all the euphemisms and subterfuges that have been drilled into the heads of gays and straights alike for so many years seemed cruelly inadequate.

I still remember the mild jolt when I heard U.S. Rep. Barney Frank, not too long ago and on national TV no less, refer to the man he had legally married in Massachusetts as his "husband." Then I realized that husband was exactly the right word.

In societies, the most insidious way majorities oppress or marginalize minorities is through labels. You're not one of us. You're a fag, a maricón, a spic, a dyke or a something else. And probably as self-defense, the excluded groups begin to use those words as if frequent use might neutralize their venom.

Gays also have invented a small lexicon to describe our long-term relationships but with little success.  "Partners" sounds like a vague business or legal relationship rather than an intimate union. Someone came up with "life partners" but that is just an arid a descriptor. "Lover" has an illicit sound to it, like a relationship you have on the side, or maybe a sexually turbo-charged arrangement, as if gay couples kept a copy of the Kama Sutra on their nightstands for constant reference. "Boyfriend" or "girlfriend" is downright high-schoolish and flighty. "Companion" or "roommate" is something you find on an apartment lease, not a reason to buy matching rings.

"Husband" or "wife," however, always remained beyond reach, primarily because it was exclusively  connected to conventional marriage, an institution off-limits to gay couples. Not too long ago we were told that the best we could hope for were "civil unions"--an insipid moniker if there ever was one--because marriage was an exclusively heterosexual institution between a man and a woman. As in Adam and Eve and because God said so.
The right ring for the right finger.

For a few years I subscribed to the defeatist "civil union" verbiage on the grounds that strategically, as some people argued, gays should just settle for what they could get in a hostile political climate.

I'm glad that those intractable agitators among us decided to hold out for marriage and not a faint simulacrum.

Fact is that times have changed thanks to the work of those agitators, and the phrase "same-sex marriage" doesn't scare the horses the way it used to. In the election last month voters in Maine and Maryland approved same-sex marriage, which also has been endorsed by President Obama.

Yep, it's time for Stew and I to abandon the "partner" gobbledygook and embrace "husband" even though we haven't been legally married anywhere.

And those so-called "commitment rings" we bought twenty years ago from a woman-owned jewelry store on Belmont Avenue in Chicago shall henceforth be known as wedding rings, and move to our left hand, where most wedding rings reside regardless of the sex of the couple involved, and where our rings belong as well.

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19 comments:

  1. Marriage is a contract and anyone of age should be able to make a contract if they want. Here in the US, the Equal Protection clause of the 14th Amendment demands it. I see a 6-3 decision this term in favor of my reading of the law.

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    1. I hope you are right about the SCOTUS, though so far it seems to be skirting the issue. A Supreme Court decision would end the debate, like the high court did in Canada, so the country can move on to something else.

      al

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  2. An interesting and thought-provoking post. In our conversations, you and Stew have caused me to rethink some of my word assumptions. You have done it again.

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    1. When the debate about using African-American instead of black or Negro came up several years ago I thought the whole thing was fatuous until you think about it. If you have Italian-Americans,Cuban-Americans and other hyphenated groups, why not African-Americans?

      al

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  3. Even though you and Stew haven't been legally married, you could still be common law in some states. But common law spouse does have a trashy connotation, doesn't it?

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    1. I'm not even sure we could qualify for common-law anything, not sure. (And yes, "common law spouse" has a trailer park kind of sound to it, lol.))

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    2. I think you and Stew meet the requirements, at least in Iowa:

      a. Mutual agreement, in praesenti, to be married

      b. Public declaration or holding out

      c. Open and continuous cohabitation.

      An occasional denial will not defeat the claim. And yes, in another lifetime and a century, I was a divorce lawyer.

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  4. Well said, as always, Al. "Husband", indeed--no other word fits. Hopefully, we'll see it in our lifetime where this isn't even an issue, but change is slow to come.

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    1. Change is coming faster than I ever imagined, if we are to believe opinion polls. The time when conservatives could use "gay marriage" as wedge issue is pretty much gone.

      al

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  5. If I remember correctly, from a prior post, you seemed to be contemplating coming to the NY area for that celebration?

    But wherever it is, it is something to celebrate.

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    1. That's still in the plans for next year!

      al

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  6. Great post.

    In the 80's in my youth in San Francisco, I hung out with more than my fair share of those "agitators," and did a bit of agitation myself, though a fairly limited version. In those days we (somewhat ironically) referred to longer term boyfriends as "husbands," never thinking that someday they could indeed become such. But that usage also recognized the importance of such partners in our lives, and the roles of support and nurturing they would play.

    When Massachusetts became one of the first states to allow gay marriages, I felt proud to be a part of it. I went to city hall to hassle the right-wingers who wanted to hassle the newly-wed gay couples, and shouted my support and affirmation to the newly-wed gays and lesbians. The following June, my favorite float was sponsored by Bay Windows, Boston's quite-good weekly gay newspaper. The float was a mock-up of their front page. Headline?

    Gays Wed! World Doesn't End!

    I'll never forget that float, and the movement it embodied. Now, nearly nine years later, the average voter is also getting the message of that float. The world has yet to end, and even here in Massachusetts we enjoy a fantastic environment that supports everyone in their diversity. No families have been destroyed via gay marriage, and even heterosexual marriage seems to have been impervious to the loss of its "special status." Straight people seem to be as eager to marry (and divorce) as ever.

    Saludos,

    Kim G
    Boston, MA
    Where we were thrilled a couple years ago when Mexico approved gay marriage.

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    1. Talking to someone about the Stonewall riots in NYC I was reminded that those "agitators" were mostly drag queens and other outsiders, while the "normal-looking" and "respectable" gay types were still in their Upper East Side closets. If it hadn't been for the drag queens those closeted gays would still be in the closet. Thanks for your thoughtful response.

      al

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    2. I've long admired Quentin Crisp for his refusal to be anyone other than himself. Indeed, it was such people who fought the toughest battles, day after day, on the most personal terms. Drag queens, Act-Up protesters, and others who have refused to "behave nicely, and within the system" have indeed been the vanguard and advanced the cause far more than anyone cared to admit at the time. Thank God for their efforts!

      Kim G

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    3. I agree! Thank God for the ballsy non-conformists! Without them society would not move forward.

      Al

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  7. A beautifully written post. I can't imagine any other term for your relationship then husband and marriage.
    In fact, I envy the closeness the two of you have and the way you support each other in all endeavors (even bee keeping). I'm thrilled to have you as friends.

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  8. The feeling about friendship is mutual!

    al

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  9. Maybe you can marry in Mexico?
    http://www.advocate.com/politics/marriage-equality/2012/12/05/mexico-supreme-court-strikes-down-marriage-ban

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  10. Muy bien dicho, Al. After nearly 29 years, when I introduce my, uh, Patrick for the first time I mentally spin the wheel of descriptor choices, looking for the most suitable option for the circumstances - partner? friend? buddy? ¿compañero?...

    Thanks!
    Stan

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