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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