En español | If you were to ask me 30 years ago, when I first came out as a lesbian, what issue would be most pressing to me, marriage equality would not have made it into my top 10.
In the 1980s, the gay community had bigger fish to fry: job security, personal safety, fair housing and AIDS policy, not to mention the politically powerful Moral Majority and its anti-gay agenda. So marriage was something that most of my crowd considered unattainable if not irrelevant.
But times have changed. Issues that once appeared intractable have gotten measurably better for us — anti-discrimination statutes and friendlier adoption laws are in place in many states, as are domestic partnership, civil union, even marriage — and in comparatively record time.
I’ve changed, too. The issue of marriage equality has become front and center for me. It landed there just as I was going through what I refer to as my big, fat, gay divorce.
For all intents and purposes, I am on my second marriage. My first lasted eight years and resulted in a much-loved child. But in the eyes of the law, my marriage never occurred because I live in Virginia, where same-sex unions are illegal. Similarly, my divorce never happened officially — though personally it certainly did.
I met my ex on a blind date in 1997. Donna (not her real name) and I clicked right away, despite our differences: She was very career-oriented and quite successful at her job as a multimedia producer; I was an editor who worked for nonprofits with social justice missions. Still, we shared a lot of basic values.
After we were together a few years, Donna told me she wanted to buy a house in northern Virginia, not far from her mother and sister. I hadn’t wanted to live in the state because I considered its laws to be openly hostile to gay people. But between the relatively low tax rate and the proximity to family and work, I allowed myself to be persuaded.
Soon afterward, Donna and I decided to adopt a child. We picked a gay-friendly agency in another state that allowed us to disclose to the birth parents that their child would be raised by lesbians. Still, the home study had to be conducted in our home state, and because Virginia prohibits same-sex couples from adopting, one of us would have to be the official parent. Since Donna was a homeowner with the higher income, we thought hers was the better profile and decided she should be the one.
Next: Separating with a child»
After three failed adoption attempts, we finally brought home Tommy — a sweet-tempered 2-week-old with expressive, beautiful eyes who soon developed an easy, infectious laugh. I took an unpaid leave from my employer, a religious organization that had every doctrinal, and legal, reason not to let me but did so anyway. When I returned to work, my bosses agreed to a generous, flexible schedule for the next few months. Donna, meanwhile, had landed an extended overseas assignment and was working an exhausting schedule.
As often happens when a child arrives on the scene, our expectations of each other began to veer in opposite directions: I expected Donna to cut back her work hours; she expected me to cover most of the childcare and do the bulk of the household chores. Eventually, as things got more stressful, Donna and I got out of the habit of being kind to each other. We stopped really talking and started resenting each other.
I left Donna when Tommy was 3 years old. If I’d been married to a man, I would have had every expectation as my son’s primary caregiver to take him with me and, perhaps, receive some alimony-like compensation for my years of reduced income and earning potential. But because I am not officially Tommy’s mom, I couldn’t negotiate a binding custody settlement, much less even discuss child support.
Technically, I could even have left Tommy and Donna and never looked back. Never helped out. Never checked in. The state of Virginia — which ironically touts family values — doesn’t require anything of me. Naturally, that course of action never occurred to me. My biggest fear was that I'd be kept from Tommy somehow, which would blow my heart into a million pieces. And Donna, for that matter, has every right to refuse me access to him, but she hasn’t and never would.
Ultimately, she and I worked out a fully shared custody arrangement after tense and expensive negotiations with mediators, whom we needed to consult in lieu of attorneys, because our arrangement fell outside the legal system. In fact, we had to write our agreement carefully because of a 2004 law that extended Virginia’s existing ban on gay marriage to include "other arrangements between persons of the same sex purporting to bestow the privileges or obligations of marriage," of which child custody is one. So even when Donna and I were doing the right thing under the hardest of circumstances, Virginia was eager to remind us that our "kind" were different from other state residents.
That’s when I came to fully appreciate the crucial importance of marriage equality. (I cringe at the term gay marriage; to me, it sounds archaic, like "lady doctor.") My nondivorce divorce convinced me that spouses, of any gender, need to be considered equal partners legally and socially. No matter how a family is configured, both parents should have equal responsibility with regard to their children. And they should have equal protection in case things get tough. They shouldn’t have to think about whether the state they live in — or move to for a job, or to care for a relative — will treat them fairly if one partner dies or they split up.
As I knew all along, Virginia is among the states that seem most hostile to gay people. Its laws make it clear that it prefers not to have people like me around. But strangely enough, I’ve never felt unwelcome living here. My interactions with pretty much everyone I’ve encountered over the years — neighbors, other parents, teachers, nurses, doctors — have been without incident and supportive even. The people I deal with face-to-face — at least in northern Virginia and at least to my face — seem to act with more sense, compassion and respect than the state’s legal code would have them do.
I find that encouraging. Not everyone has to agree with a person’s choice of marriage partner to wish the couple well — or to take comfort in the knowledge that they’re protected for better or for worse.
Beth Daniels still lives in Virginia, to be with her child, but regularly travels to San Francisco to be with her wife, whom she married in 2008, during the short window of time same-sex marriage was legal and available in California.