It’s a crisp sunny morning in late December. I’m sitting in my therapist’s lobby in Midtown Manhattan, anxiously waiting for my girlfriend, Sabrina, to arrive. She’s visiting my shrink with me so we can duke out our premarital differences, which can be boiled down to one, ever-nagging question: Why, after three-and-a-half happy years together, do I still cringe at the thought of getting married?
Now that same-sex marriage is legal in New York, our home state, this question shows up in conversations with friends and family on a regular basis and lingers like a houseguest who won’t leave. For Sabrina, who’s old-fashioned on matters of love, it’s an uncomplicated I do. But each time I think yes to matrimony, doubt and anxiety undermine my confidence. My ambivalence, however, doesn’t at all reflect on my love, desire or devotion toward Sabrina.
I met her three summers ago on the roof deck of a lesbian bar in Brooklyn. I was on a second date with a fiery Italian girl from Long Island. When my date went to the bathroom, Sabrina swooped in—with liquid courage on her breath—and boldly asked for my number.
Maybe it was the cocky way she crashed my date or the strength and vulnerability I saw in her dark brown eyes; maybe it was her Rubenesque curves (which could out-sexy Scarlett Johansson’s) or the delicate features in her feminine face. All I knew in that moment was that something about her moved me, and I wanted her with an urgency and tenderness I’d never felt for another. Three years in, I can’t imagine a better woman to spend the rest of my life with.
But the very thought of walking down the aisle, even with Sabrina at my side, feels like running a marathon on old and arthritic legs. Everything in me protests: “I can’t do this.” And it’s taken months to figure out why.
When I entered puberty at the freakishly early age of ten and realized that I was gay, it was 1986. AIDS was killing thousands of gay men while our President, Ronald Reagan, remained silent, refusing to speak out against one of the worst viral scourges in human history. Reagan’s apathy toward the “gay cancer,” as it was known in the early ‘80s, is a good measure of how little our lives were valued back then—and how far removed the concept of same-sex marriage was from the popular imagination. The point is: I didn’t even know I could have matrimonial aspirations. So I never did.
By 1998, I was a junior in college, getting schooled by queer and feminist critiques of marriage. Marriage, the theorists argued, coerces people into coupledom by rewarding them with privileged social status and economic benefits; it devalues and stigmatizes sexual relationships outside matrimony; it makes single people feel inadequate; and, historically, it benefits men far more than it benefits women. It became clear to me that marital unions were something to run from, not toward. I almost felt happy, knowing that my queerness set me apart—and that I’d never have to get married.
Then came the game-changing events of May 2004: Massachusetts started handing out marriage licenses to same-sex couples. For the first time in history, gay marriage became a legitimate part of our national conversation. And this past July, New York became the sixth state to grant same-sex partners the license to wed. Progress? I’m still not so sure.
Never mind that gay marriage is antithetical to the ethos of ‘60s and ‘70s gay liberationism, which was all about sexual freedom and experimentation and challenging the status quo. Wedlock feels to me like reentering the closet. It demands that I reserve my love and desire for Sabrina for the rest of my life and that if any other passions emerge while loving her, I should squash them in the service of our marital bond. But as a queer person, I’ve already stifled enough romantic longings for a lifetime—so many that the monogamy-imperative makes marriage feel less like a loving sanctuary than an all-too familiar prison.
That’s not to say that because Sabrina and I haven’t wed our relationship is non-monogamous. But as one half of an unmarried couple, being with Sabrina is always a choice of my free will. It is not a legally binding obligation. I am not expected to walk in step with perfect morality because I’ve not vowed that I could, and I won’t be condemned if I lose my footing, which I inevitably will.
It won’t be physical attractions alone that will compel me toward another woman. I’m more likely to cave under the weight of heavier emotions—the stuff that hits like magic: when someone ineffably moves you and floods every corner of your consciousness.
Sabrina and I are only three years in, and I’ve already felt that igniting tug toward another woman. My crush was laughably “not an option”—eighteen years my senior and engaged (to a man)—but had she been, I can’t say that I’d have been strong enough to wrestle down my temptations.
I know this statement alone will make me seem like a serious asshole. I also know that it’ll make many believe that I must not love Sabrina enough or that our relationship is headed toward an imminent end. Neither is true. My crush didn’t in any way threaten or confuse what I feel for Sabrina. But like most people, I believed that once I felt the way I do about Sabrina, I’d never want another.
These lies—that you can only be in love with one person at once, and that if you fall for others while in a committed partnership, that partnership must be fundamentally flawed—carry the weight of truth only because they’ve been hammered into our heads.
The cultural push to find “the love of one’s life” is more about social control and religious dogma than an accurate measure of true love. (And if I ever created a love pyramid, I’d probably place the one that has the electrifying, galvanizing power of passion on top, not the one that chugs along like a steady train over flat terrain.)
I know I may sound like a lecherous animal roaring for the moral right to bed whomever I want, whenever I want. But the truth is I’m just not convinced that sexual fidelity is the testament to real commitment and love. In June, Mark Oppenheimer wrote an article for The New York Times Magazine on non-monogamous marriages, elaborating on the same point. Paraphrasing Dan Savage, he writes: “Treating monogamy, rather than honesty or joy or humor, as the main indicator of a successful marriage gives people unrealistic expectations of themselves and their partners. And that…destroys more families than it saves.”
As much as I love Sabrina, I can’t possibly know how I am going to feel about her, or how she is going to feel about me, one, five or ten years from now. Desires change, new ones emerge: marriage asks us to pretend that they don’t and then vilifies us when they do, especially if we can’t muster up the Herculean efforts to resist acting on them. (Why we launch our attack on the individuals—the many individuals—who fail the promise of monogamy in marriage, rather than on the rigid expectation of sexual fidelity continues to boggle my mind.)
That’s not to say that I want (or could cope with) an open relationship. Because romantic couplings—in all their regressive (baby talking) glory—mirror our first relationship (with our parents), sexual infidelity triggers a primal fear of parental abandonment that sends most of us over the edge. That’s why a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy--as imperfect a solution as it is--makes the most sense to me.
“Unless you want to leave me or you’ve infected me with an STD,” I explain to Sabrina in my therapist’s office moments later, “I don’t need to know—and I won’t ask—about your dalliances with others because neither of us could deal with the consequences of that knowledge.”
“That won’t work,” Sabrina tersely counters. A social worker in training to become a child therapist, Sabrina is a talk-therapy junkie who sees psychological meaning in even the most mundane things, like an untied shoe or spilt milk. “If you cheat on me, it’s a symptom of a problem in our relationship,” she says with certainty, “and we won’t grow past it unless we discuss it.”
I want to stop her and say: “You’re gay. How can you be so quick to pathologize a deviation from the norm? And how are you so sure that marriage is the best way to organize our relationship?” But I don’t. Instead, I go straight for the do-or-die question:
“If we both plan to live according to our opposing beliefs about this, do you still want to marry me?”
“I don’t know,” she says for the first time. “This conversation isn’t over, is it?”
“Do you still want to be with me if we don’t get married?”
“I don’t know,” she says again. “We’ll keep talking.”
But the thought of losing her stings me into silence. And our session is over for today.
Stephanie Fairyington is a writer in New York City, and the co-founder of Two Giant Eyeballs, an entertaining source for all things fact-checking.