I got married on Saturday. I'm just hoping it lasts through next week.
Few newlyweds enter a marriage with such low expectations (except for maybe Britney Spears, whose 2004 Vegas quickie was annulled after two days). But my new spouse, Jeff Bechtloff, and I are gay men living in California. And like thousands of couples who've tied the knot since the state Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage this spring, we rushed to get wed before voters could decide on Nov. 4 whether or not we should.
After hemming and hawing, we figured we'd better hurry up when the polls this month started showing that voters might actually take away our new nuptial rights. We had to send our invitations by e-mail and didn't expect many people could attend on less than three week's notice. So we were stunned and humbled when almost everyone we knew—our extended families, our friends, Jeff's co-workers and mine at NEWSWEEK—all said they would come. A United Nations lawyer we know flew in from Kosovo, and Jeff's sisters traveled from Florida to our home in Los Angeles. Jeff's mother walked him down the aisle, followed by my 86-year-old father and 93-year-old mother, who accompanied me as I bit my lip and fought back unexpected tears. Standing before the judge (who happened to be the sister of our best man), I looked out over the audience of 100 familiar faces and saw my tears of joy returned in kind. If that's not love, then I'm not sure what is.
It's difficult to explain how it feels now, as Jeff and I face the possibility that our marriage could lose its validity come next Tuesday. The absurdity of having the most personal aspect of your life determined by a ballot proposition is best summed up by the slogan on a T shirt I saw a gay man wearing this month: CAN I VOTE ON YOUR MARRIAGE? Proposition 8 would change the state Constitution to stipulate "only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California." It's not certain that marriages performed before the vote will continue to be valid if Prop 8 passes, though our judge is of the opinion they will, since ex post facto, or retroactive, laws are illegal under Article 1 of the United States Constitution. I am grateful that the Founding Fathers had the foresight not to make the U.S. Constitution as easily fungible as the state of California's.
Like most Americans, I like to believe in the promises those Founding Fathers made. I hold the Declaration of Independence especially dear because it was written by a long-lost cousin of mine (look again at my byline). If he were alive today, I'd have invited him to my wedding. Not that Thomas Jefferson would necessarily have approved of my sexual orientation—back in his day, he advocated castration as punishment for sodomy in the state of Virginia. Then again, my cousin was hardly a model of sexual propriety, canoodling as he did with his slave Sally Hemings. I would only hope that the man who promised me "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" would agree that affairs of the heart should not be determined by popular vote. (Question for the Mormon church, which has pushed its members to funnel millions of dollars into the Yes on Prop 8 campaign: do you regret having helped my dad and I trace our genealogy when I was in sixth grade?)
Look, I'm a realist. "All men are created equal" may be the cornerstone of what we call "liberty," but it has taken a couple of centuries for the American populace to digest the meaning of those words, and I suspect it will take centuries more. When my mother was born, women didn't have the right to vote. When my sister was born, "separate but equal" was the law in the South. When I was born, blacks and whites couldn't marry in several states.
And for most of my life, many of my fellow Americans have attempted to prevent gay people from having the same rights as others, whether by refusing to allow homosexuals to serve openly in the military, withholding legal recognition of our relationships—or in subtler, more personal ways. When Jeff and I were first planning our wedding, we decided to have the reception at our favorite restaurant, a dimly lit joint with red Naugahyde booths across the street from the Warner Bros. studios. But as we left the restaurant after a visit with one of the banquet managers, a drunk patron in his late 20s saw fit to spit an ugly remark at us: "Bye boys," he said with a fake lisp. In our seven years together, Jeff and I have encountered almost no antigay slurs—if anything, just the opposite—and it was a sock in the gut, a reminder of the taunts I endured as a kid and the fear I carry to this day that some jerk might decide to beat me up because I'm a "faggot." What if another patron said something offensive at the wedding reception, in front of our parents and friends? The next day—just two weeks before the wedding—we hastily switched venues to a more-private facility.
Since I was a teenager, I've been watching gay people in America fight for their rights. In 1978, when I was 14, a conservative legislator named John Briggs got an initiative on the California state ballot to prevent gays and lesbians from working in the public schools. The measure was leading in the polls by a large margin until just the week before the election when Gov. Ronald Reagan announced his opposition and it lost by a wide margin. "Homosexuality is not a contagious disease like measles," the governor wrote in a September 1978 statement. "Prevailing scientific opinion is that an individual's sexuality is determined at a very early age and that a child's teachers do not really influence this."
Thirty years have passed, but Californians are again being bombarded by advertisements suggesting that gays and lesbians are out to corrupt schoolchildren. One especially noxious ad by the Prop 8 campaign features a young girl informing her horrified mother, "Guess what I learned in school today? I learned how a prince married a prince, and I can marry a princess." Put aside for a moment that California Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O'Connell says schools aren't required to teach kids anything about same-sex marriage ("using kids to lie … is shameful," he intones in a No on Prop 8 commercial). Or that many parents have no problem with their children being taught about the existence of gay couples, since the purpose of an education is—presumably—to learn about subjects with which one is unfamiliar. But just like Briggs's supporters, the Proposition 8 team is preying on parents' fears that their children can somehow be "turned" gay if they encounter gay people or learn anything about the "homosexual lifestyle" (a phrase used by the religious right that is code for "burn in hell"). The irony of all this, of course, is that Reagan himself—protector of the family values that opponents of gay marriage say they are trying to preserve—determined that such arguments were bunk.
Had the Briggs initiative passed, my friend Kevin Allen, who attended my wedding with his husband, Mike Wallace, would never have been allowed to become principal of one of the top-performing elementary schools in the state of California. Watching the joy on my mother's face as Kevin boogied with her to "Dancing Queen" at my wedding reception, I couldn't understand how this gay-marriage business was a threat to anybody? But then I thought about my teenage nephew and what he said to me right after the ceremony, "I can't stand those Prop 8 people. They're crazy. Everyone should be able to marry the person they love" (or, as his father put it when he and my sister told him about the engagement: "Uncle David deserves the right to get married and be miserable just like we are").
Having a gay uncle certainly hasn't impacted my nephew's sexuality, as evidenced by the way he hit on my new sisters-in-law at the wedding banquet. But it has made him more tolerant of gay people, and that's something opponents of gay marriage have reason to fear. Young people are much more supportive of same-sex marriage than are their elders: in a national CBS News poll conducted this spring, 40 percent of respondents 18-29 said gay couples should be allowed to legally marry (only 29 percent said gay relationships shouldn't be recognized at all; 28 percent were in favor of civil unions for gay people). By comparison, only 31 percent of people 30-44, 28 percent of those 45-64 and 17 percent of those 65 and older said gays should have the right to marry.
Opponents of gay marriage don't like this trend. And because California is a trendsetter, they want to stop same-sex marriage here before it spreads any further. So the long-presumed liberal "Left Coast" has become the Gettysburg in our nation's culture war, with antigay protestors picketing while gay people dash to the altar as if they're being shipped to the battlefront tomorrow (according to some estimates, 20,000 same-sex couples will have been married in California by Tuesday). "This is ground zero in the war over what it means to have a family," says John G. Matsusaka, president of the University of Southern California's Initiative & Referendum Institute.
It's understandable that people who oppose homosexuality—either for religious reasons or just plain homophobia—are concerned they'll be forced to accept something they believe is morally reprehensible. A recent ad by the proponents of Prop 8 warned that churches could lose their tax-exempt status if they refuse to perform same-sex marriages. As evidence, the campaign pointed to a 2007 New Jersey case in which a lesbian couple wanted to have a civil union at a beach pavilion owned by a Methodist ministry but was denied use of the facility. While the state decided to revoke the pavilion's tax-exempt status, the Yes on 8 camp failed to point out that the status of the ministry itself was unaffected. Later, Frank Schubert, manager of Yes on 8, was forced to acknowledge "a church would be very likely permitted to refuse to perform a gay wedding in the church with no risk to their tax exemption."
Those who want to nullify my new civil rights tell me that's not really what they're doing. "Proposition 8 is NOT an attack on gay couples and does not take away the rights that same-sex couples already have under California's domestic partner law," it says on the ProtectMarriage.com Web site. "California law already grants domestic partners all the rights that a state can grant to a married couple." This may be technically correct, but my own experience with "domestic partnerships" is that they are the gay equivalent of the "colored only" water fountain. "In practice, same-sex couples have difficulty really getting the recognition and the protection under domestic-partner laws, because it's a separate system," says Jennifer C. Pizer, senior counsel of Lambda Legal and a coauthor of California's domestic-partner law. "Many institutions haven't understood their legal duties, and many couples don't have the knowledge to stamp their foot to get equal treatment," she says. Case in point: paramedics once refused to let my friend Kevin, the school principal, ride in an ambulance with his domestic partner Mike because they weren't married.
When Jeff and I decided to register as domestic partners in 2006 after five years together, we had no illusions that it was the same as marriage. In fact, we signed the papers specifically so we could take advantage of a two-for-one discount at a golf club that had fallen on hard times and was recruiting gay couples to boost its dying, retiree ranks. But we had to prove we were domestic partners before we could get the discount. So it was, that Jeff and I found ourselves at the home of an elderly notary, about to legalize our relationship by signing papers atop the washing machine in her garage (thinking better of the symbolism, we asked if we could sit down at her kitchen table). The following day, I carted the papers to a dank government office in downtown L.A., where I took a number, waited and then traded the forms for a certificate and a form letter from the California secretary of state congratulating us. The experience was hardly romantic, more like getting a visa at the Chinese Consulate than anything else. But now we could get our cheap golf membership—a consolation prize for not being able to marry.
Rick Warren, the evangelical pastor of Saddleback Church in Orange County, Calif., and author of "The Purpose Driven Life," has argued in favor of Prop 8 that, "There is no reason to change the universal, historical definition of marriage to appease 2 percent of our population." What Warren fails to acknowledge is that the "historical definition of marriage" has changed over the course of time. For most of human history, across many societies, "the preferred marriage was one man and many women," marriage historian Stephanie Coontz told me. "If precedent is our guide, shouldn't we legalize polygamy, bring back arranged marriages and child brides, and decriminalize wife beating?" she writes in her 2005 book "Marriage, a History."
Coontz argues that many things we believe to be "traditional" about marriage were actually relatively recent innovations. Prior to the 1700s, marriage was mostly a business arrangement made by a couple's parents, a way of building a family's assets and increasing its labor force. The majority of newlyweds weren't "in love," and some didn't even know one another before their wedding day. But the Age of Enlightenment ushered in pesky notions about liberty and personal freedom, and "people began to adopt the radical new idea that love should be the most fundamental reason for marriage and that young people should be free to choose their marriage partners on the basis of love," Coontz says. The idea evolved over the next two centuries, and homosexuals ultimately decided they, too, should have the freedom to choose their marriage partners. Talk about radical: could it be that the Enlightenment ideals of personal freedom—the same ones that inspired my cousin in that sweltering summer of 1776—were what allowed my boyfriend to marry into the Jefferson clan last weekend?
In the weeks before my wedding, many straight friends who've been divorced asked me why I wanted to be part of a "failed" institution that had left them with alimony payments and children they see only half time. I had to do some soul-searching around that one. Like many men, I've grappled with "commitment issues," and as my exes can attest, it's taken this 44-year-old a long time to settle into a stable relationship. Was I just doing it because I could, to make a political statement? Partly, though I find it amusing to think that picking out Tiffany china with Jeff is somehow "radical." Was I tired of living with my nose pressed against the glass, looking at the lives of married couples with a mixture of disdain and envy? Yep, I'll cop to that, too, yet Jeff and I had already done a good job of achieving suburban bliss without a marriage license. Maybe I just wanted to show our family and friends that our relationship was as "real" as theirs. True, except none of them have ever treated our union as anything but.
Despite my unanswered questions about my own motives, I leapt into wedding planning with the ferocity of the fiancées on "Bridezillas." After the unfortunate incident with the homophobic restaurant patron, we settled for a banquet hall at the Los Angeles Equestrian Center in Burbank that specializes in one-stop-shop weddings. What surprised us most was just how unfazed and supportive all the vendors seemed to be about our pending nuptials, even though some of them had never worked at a gay wedding before. The bakery we chose, Hansen's Cakes in Los Angeles, was a particular surprise: they were already carrying same-sex cake toppers, with mixed-race gay and lesbian couples. This is what I love most about American capitalism: smart business people don't discriminate as long as your money's green.
The wedding itself turned out to be as integrated as the cake toppers, a mélange of traditional and contemporary, straight and gay, religious and secular. Jeff's 10-year-old nephew was the ring bearer, and our flower girl was the daughter of the woman who'd set us up on a blind date in 2001. We marched down the aisle to Frank Sinatra's "All the Way," and two friends did a reading from "Breakfast at Tiffany's," our favorite romantic film. In honor of my mother, we stomped a wine glass at the end of the ceremony, per Jewish tradition. The judge may have pronounced us lawful wedded "spouses," but we promised to love, comfort and be faithful to one another, in sickness and in health, just like heterosexual couples do.
So why, ultimately, did I go through with it? In retrospect, I can see that it was all about wanting to make a commitment—pledging my devotion to the man I love; showing our family and friends that we're all more alike than we are different; refusing to stand silently by while others try to take away my rights. Only by giving up my independence at the altar, I realized, could I truly declare my independence. For that, I think my cousin would be proud.
With Andrew Murr