For the longest time in my mid- to late-20s, I dated women. Then towards the end of that decade, I found myself seeing a man. It was nothing serious – just shags and giggles. He was never my boyfriend; I was never his girlfriend. One night we popped out to the supermarket, probably to pick up some more wine. We climbed out of the bloke’s ute, and as we crossed the parking lot, he took my hand.
And I freaked.
When I’d dated women, yes, I’d held hands with them in public. But there was always a risk to this. We’d get curious looks or words hurled at us – “lesbians!” “fucking dykes” “pussylickers” – and we’d worry about something worse happening. A decision to hold hands in public was always a negotiation, a thoughtful “Is it OK? Is it worth the level of risk in this particular instance?” Strolling to brunch on Ponsonby Rd when there was virtually no risk, we’d hold hands with no hesitation, a declaration of “yes, we can hold hands here, and hooray that we can hold hands here.” In less welcoming environments, we may just quietly brush our fingers, a way of saying “I’d be holding your hand now if I felt safe to do so.”
So being able to hold hands with someone I wasn’t even that into in a supermarket parking lot in South Auckland like it wasn’t a thing felt utterly alien to me, and I just felt so fucking ill that he did it without even thinking about it – a natural action, to take my hand. And an enormous privilege that I hadn’t had with the women I’d dated. We’d evoke no curious glances, no threatening glares, no vile words. People wouldn’t even look twice at he and I holding hands. And that made me feel so uncomfortable – that in this instance, because he was male and I was female, our holding hands was a completely accepted, even expected, act.
That’s little bit like being engaged felt to me. I was always aware that it was one of those privileges that I had simply because I’d happened to fall in love with a man, and that did not sit well with me. I was clear from the start that we’d only actually be getting married if marriage equality was a reality by the time of our wedding – something which my fiance took absolutely zero convincing on. He has his own reasons for feeling strongly about marriage equality.
There was a lot of talk about words during the marriage equality debate – about how same-sex couples should be OK accepting civil unions only, how “marriage” as a word has always been defined as between and man and a woman throughout all time and cultures, how it’s definition had never changed and never ought to change*. There were fears that words like “bride” and “groom”, “husband” and “wife” would disappear, and people felt strongly about that because those are incredibly powerful, meaningful words.
There is the none-too-small fact that married couples are able to adopt, while civilly united couples are not. However, like I imagine the vast majority of couples, we don’t plan to adopt, so there is no appreciable legal difference between the two relationship solemnisation options for us. Therefore, our desire to be married rather than civilly united is entirely down to words. We want to be married. I want my fiance to be my husband; he wants me to be his wife. I even want to be (ack, I can’t believe I’m saying this) a bride! Yes, we could have a civil union ceremony and just use those words anyway, but that would feel to me like a bit of a charade. Besides, the one bum note at the beautiful civil union ceremonies I’ve been to is always the “I now pronounce you partners in civil union.” Which I’ve always felt lacks the poetry and gravitas of “I now pronounce you husband and wife” or “I now pronounce you wife and wife” or even simply “I now pronounce you married”. As I’ve said before, words are powerful. Words are what this debate was all about. And I wanted those words, and my fiance wanted those words. Just not at the cost of sublimating aspects of ourselves, and not at the cost of feeling like a privileged other to some of the people we hold dearest.
So the morning after April 17th, the morning after the bill Marriage Amendment Act had been voted into law, I woke up full of joy and peace about getting married for the first time. Because it’s no longer a privilege my fiance and I are lucky enough to enjoy because I happen to be female and he happens to be male. It’s not something we get to choose that our gay friends and relatives don’t. It’s open to anyone who wants it, and it doesn’t deny any part of either of us. And that makes it so much more meaningful for both of us.
* To which I simply say: “snort!”