Last week, my husband I celebrated the anniversary of our almost two-decade old marriage.
We had a lot of trouble with that “marriage” business, and the term “husband” and “wife” when we decided to live together all those years ago. He and I didn’t like the fact that husband was a verb, while wife wasn’t: no one wifed their resources. Neither of us were instinctively comfortable with gender roles or the institution of marriage, and yet it was the simplest way to let our families and friends know that we loved each other and planned to share our lives, cats, books and paunches. We settled into marriage the way you settle into a rented house: you know it’s the wrong shape and size, but you’ll make it a home anyway.
“Did you ever think you’d be with someone for so long?” I asked the morning of our anniversary. In the pause, the word came up again, the one we couldn’t avoid, so I made the question even clearer. “Did you ever plan a life where you’d be in a marriage for almost twenty years?”
“No,” he said, “Never. But I’m glad we’re together.” There was a kind of wonder in his voice, and we spent the anniversary the way couples do, looking back at the flow of time, the memories, the years in which we’d made mistakes that seemed irrevocable at the moment, the arguments, the thousand acts of kindness and understanding, and if I might say it, the love that has to be renewed on a daily basis in any partnership. That love, so ordinary, so everyday, had rowed us here across a river of time; it had steered us across the white water rapids of disagreements and down the broad midstream years when you fear you’ve become the boring old middle-aged couple you used to laugh at in your youth. (That fear has come true, and like all fears, it is not as bad as we thought it would be.)
But all through that week, I was also conscious of a deep and growing unease. We had questioned and argued over the institution of marriage—the great obdurate concrete house of it—every year. Some rooms in the concrete house were left windowless and locked in all their ugliness; the laws of India, for instance, do not recognise marital rape, and we had winced years ago when we had realised that my husband had a legal right to demand sex whenever he felt like it. But a marriage is also a private thing, a living, breathing relationship that two people construct between themselves, and we annexed the territory of our bedroom to ourselves, just as we made our own laws of trust and caring, and respect for each other, through all of the small and large turbulences of love. The laws of the land stopped at the doors of our home. Our marriage would become what we constructed, rather than what the courts or society decreed it should be.
The unease came from elsewhere, from the awareness that these small things—the celebration of anniversaries, the ability to rejoice in public, to share our wedding photographs and to share our happiness—were only for those who could enter the house of marriage in the first place. In the weeks before our anniversary, India had reversed a landmark judgement on gay rights, re-criminalizing gay sex and opening the door to socially approved homophobia. In Nigeria, the Hisbah launches sting operations to hunt down gay men. Writers across the world came together just before the Sochi games to protest Russia’s anti-LGBT stance and laws; homosexuality is equated with pedophilia under Putin’s regime. Across the world, doctors still pretend to “cure” non-heteros of their non-existent ailment, just because their desires branch out in other ways.
In my twenties, I had stepped into marriage aware that my sexual orientation gave me certain privileges that my lesbian and gay friends didn’t have. We had all fallen in love in more or less the same way. That sudden tug on the line, the sense of connection, the startled moment of clarity when you know your own heart, the dizzying loops and plunges of desire is the same whether it’s boy meets boy, boy meets girl or girl meets girl. Other things might be different; the way you conduct a relationship, the way society sees you, the freedoms you allow yourself, the way you understand and explore the body, but this basic human act, falling in love, is genderblind. Everyone falls in love, or lust, in the privacy of their own mind.
One of my childhood friends met her partner the same year I did, and went through a decade-long struggle for acceptance in her family. An old friend and his partner came out slowly, over the years, setting aside the privacy they had prized so greatly because it was just as important not to hide who they were. Other friends weaved and ducked and suffered as the law told them their desires were unnatural and irrelevant, and ultimately, punishable. Last year, when two different pairs of friends, a gay couple and a lesbian couple, got married, in countries and states where it had finally been made legal, I was unprepared for the emotion that welled up in me: a sense of some justice in the world, at last.
This is not about LGBT marriage, or even marriage in itself. There are so many other relationships, and so many connections you can make if you give lust, passion, love, desire, friendship and everything else the space they deserve; what happens between people, two or more, is not to be taxonomically classified.
But two decades ago, stepping with scepticism into this thing called marriage, I had assumed that our lives would become more equal, not less. I had thought, and so had thousands, probably millions, around the globe, that it would take a very short time for the world to right itself, for us to stop telling people who they could love and how. It was like being born into an era where slavery existed, but growing up knowing that the abolition movement would prevail.
For all the technical debates over LGBT rights and gay marriage in the US and Section 377 in India, I don’t get it: how is it that anyone can still defend these basic inequalities? The unease I felt has been replaced. Not by the liberal guilt we’re trained to express, but by the same anger I felt twenty years ago when it became clear to me that the world had different rules for heteros, and for the Rest. What did freemen feel in an age of slavery? Anger, perhaps; guilt, probably; unease, we hope: but most of all, you understand that your own freedoms, the automatic rights you have, are worth nothing if they are not available for everyone.
It turns out that my partner and I love the corniness of anniversaries, the fact that they give you an excuse to replay the history of your time with another person and to press the pause button on all the good bits. This institution of marriage has become in the end our shelter and comfort, a big roomy shamiana under which we could pitch our own particular private tent. We would not have chosen marriage for ourselves if we had thought harder about the politics of it; but because we had the choice in the first place, we walked into the next twenty years, trusting that all would be well. This year, hetero friends of ours are getting married, and they are excited about the ceremonies, the celebrations, their lives. Other LGBT friends celebrate their loves, lusts and lives anyway, even if the law forces them to do so furtively.
It seems not just ridiculous but truly unforgivable that someone else cannot share their love legally, or openly, only because they have a different sexual orientation; that makes about as much sense as withholding rights from people because of the colour of their skin. Twenty years ago, I thought change was right around the corner. How can it possibly take another two decades of the earth turning around the sun for love’s freedoms to be available to everyone on the planet?
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