Barely a few months after we met, Pam and I knew that we were going to be together forever.
We knew it the way you know that you’re a cat person or a dog person; the way you know that you’re going to be an English teacher rather than an accountant, or vice versa.
In the fall of 1983, on a beautiful, moonlit night, we lit candles, exchanged wedding bands, promised to love and be with each other exclusively, and to share all the ups and downs that life would bring our way. We marked that anniversary each year, thrilled when we reached milestones such as double digits and then double decades.
We proclaimed our do-it-yourself marriage just as good as anyone else’s — the equivalent of the real thing.
“We don’t need the government’s recognition or a church ceremony to know that we’re going to stay together forever,” we’d say.
Our relationship was even better, because we were staying by choice, not because some institution said we had to. Of course, it was all bluster. We convinced ourselves we didn’t want more, because we never expected we’d be allowed to have it. Even looking at health insurance (from somewhere like https://www.insurancequotes.com/health/health-insurance-marrying) would give us second thoughts. Nowadays applying for insurance is no problem as a married couple but back then was a different story.
As time went on, we were reminded often that while we saw our relationship as equal to a marriage, no one else did. Not our families (though they were mostly kind and welcoming to our partners), our work colleagues or many of our friends. Even worse, government and community institutions, as well as many businesses, took the position that we were complete legal strangers to each other.
When you’re young, such things don’t much matter. But major life events, some good (buying a house, getting promotions) and some bad (deaths of parents, major illnesses), managed to point out the shortcomings of our not-quite-wedded life.
Luckily, I married an incredibly pragmatic woman who made sure that every valuable thing we owned was documented as belonging to both of us. We had legal documents prepared for every possible eventuality: homestead, health care proxy, durable power of attorney, wills …
So, when Pam was hospitalized with a potentially life-threatening illness, I was able to be there, to speak with the doctors, to be consulted about treatment and to give my opinions about courses of action.
But we learned that if the unthinkable were to happen and Pam passed away, there was a chance that I could be deprived even of the right to attend her funeral.
If a member of her family chose, they could, as next of kin, claim her remains, make funeral arrangements, and decide where she would be buried. They could do all this without talking to me, without asking me what Pam might have wanted, without notifying me of the time or location of any final ceremonies. And there would be nothing I could do.
In an instant, we knew our just-as-good-as-marriage situation was anything but. We had spent years telling ourselves that as long as we loved each other we needed nothing else. It was a romantic notion, a “you and me against the world” feeling. Until now, it had worked to draw us closer together. Suddenly, it left us feeling vulnerable and scared.
We started paying more attention to the gay marriage movement and signed up for newsletter updates from GLAD. It was right around the same time that an attorney for the organization, Mary Bonauto, began making a name for herself with the case of Goodridge v. Massachusetts Department of Public Health. Seven gay couples were suing the state for the right to marry.
By now, we were totally invested in the notion that we could be married. For real.
Goodridge spent two years — two very nervous years for us — going through the courts.
On May 17, 2004, the state Supreme Court ruling affirming gay couples’ constitutional right to marry in Massachusetts went into effect. We picked up our marriage license that day, got our blood tests and waited the requisite three days before heading to Town Hall and saying our “I do’s” like so many couples before us.
Except that we weren’t like so many couples before us. For one thing, the wording of the actual marriage vows didn’t suit a same-sex couple. So we wrote our own. For another, we doubted that many straight couples were so fearful of a constitutional amendment banning their right to marry that they refused to wait for the weekend to schedule their ceremony. And finally, unlike most other married couples, if we drove just a few miles down the road and over the state line into New Hampshire, we would no longer be married … just two legal strangers again.
Today, 35 states and the District of Columbia consider us a married couple. Federal rules that ban recognition of our marriage are falling one by one. For example, I no longer have to pay extra federal taxes on the value of the health insurance that I carry for Pam through my employer. And I no longer fear eternal separation from the woman I will spend my life loving. Morbid as it may seem, we both take comfort in knowing that our final plans are each other’s to make.
So much has changed, yet so much stays the same. We are still the same two women who, 32 years ago this fall, committed our hearts and our lives to each other. It is that anniversary we still celebrate; the much newer, “real” anniversary only tells a fraction of our story.
At the conclusion of a wedding reception we attended recently, the mother of the bride announced that the couple at each table married the longest could take home the floral centerpiece. All eyes turned to a couple (a man and woman) at our table, who said proudly that they’d been married for 27 years.
“Oooh, it’s yours!” everyone said.
Pam and I looked at each other and smiled. We knew better.
By Donna Capodelupo