We’re a Gay Couple That Had to Get Married Five Times

I’m part of a same-sex couple that’s been together for twenty-eight years, married for twenty-three. But over the years, we had to get married five times. To each other, no less.

Let’s run through our different marriages, shall we? Because each one of those marriages reflected a step forward in the LGBTQ rights movement.

My husband Michael and I met in 1992 and decided in 1996 to have a “commitment ceremony.” It’s hard to explain now, but back then it felt too weird to publicly call it a “marriage.” Two men being committed to each other was one thing, but the idea of two men being “married” was way beyond the conception of even our most liberal friends.

But we believed — and still believe — it was important to be open and honest about our relationship, not just among our close friends, but to everyone who knew us, and to the world at large. So we gathered our friends and family together for the ceremony on an island off the coast of Seattle. My mom, raised a conservative Catholic, had an unsettling smile plastered on her face the whole time, and I was a little worried she might throw up in the middle of the ceremony.

But she didn’t, and the two of us were officially a couple. We even went on a honeymoon to Ireland, even if we didn’t really call it a “honeymoon.” Back then, that felt too weird too.

And here’s the thing: the marriage wasn’t official. It wasn’t recorded or recognized anywhere. It was just something we had chosen to do in front of our friends and family. (And we were extremely glad we did. We were overwhelmed by the love and support we felt from everyone except for my mother.)

A few years later, in 1999, we had moved to Los Angeles. We were really poor, and Bally’s Fitness snottily refused to give us the cheaper “family” membership without some sort of official certificate proving we really were a couple. So we drove over to West Hollywood, which had become one of the first places in the country to offer something called a “domestic partnership.”

We signed some paperwork, and the lovely people at the West Hollywood town hall threw confetti and served champagne, toasting our new marriage. Because we’d been given the incorrect closing time on the phone, a whole group of folks even stayed an entire hour after their workday to get the certificate done and celebrate with us. On a Friday night!

But this second marriage wasn’t legally recognized anywhere either. Literally the only benefit was getting that family membership at the gym. At that point, we were so pissed at Bally’s that we didn’t even bother going back. Instead, we went to the YMCA, and they didn’t even ask to see any documentation about our marriage. And no YMCA in any city since then has ever flinched at offering us a family membership.

Bally’s went out of business in 2016. Karma is a patient bitch.

In 2009, back in Seattle again, Washington State announced it would offer “civil unions” to its LGBTQ residents. Apart from a few minor state recognitions, this too had no real benefits, but local activists saw this as a way to increase visibility and eventually expand our rights, and we agreed, so we signed up for that too. We sent in the paperwork and received a fancy certificate back in the mail.

In 2011, when same-sex marriage finally became legal in the state, we were automatically upgraded to spouses. This was a little weird, because we got a letter from the state government saying that if they didn’t hear from us by a certain date, we’d be married. Surprise!

But even this marriage only recognized state married benefits, of which there weren’t nearly as many as there are federal ones. This too was more about the promise of future rights.

That said, there was clearly a feeling of change in the air regarding LGBTQ people and our relationships, and we were totally on board. State and federal politicians were finally listening to us, and taking our concerns very seriously. Things were improving radically and dramatically.

And sure enough, in 2015 the Supreme Court of the United States declared, in a narrow five-to-four victory, that marriage was a fundamental right to be recognized throughout the land. Once again, the two of us had to fill out some additional paperwork, and then we celebrated with some friends. After twenty-one years together, we were truly officially married.

Michael and I disagree slightly on the meaning of this fifth marriage.

For me, it was just a formality — mere words on a piece of paper. The way I see it, we always had the right to marry: it’s guaranteed to us in the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution. From my point of view, all that happened in 2015 was that our country finally recognized our existing rights and the first marriage that took place back in 1996.

Michael agreed with this, but still thought it was worth celebrating, because it was a hard-fought legal victory and an important acknowledgement our relationship by the government.

Either way, for the first three decades of our relationship, we’ve literally lived the history of gay rights in America. Until just the last few years, it seemed to us literally unimaginable that things could change so much so fast.

(We agree with those who say there is still more work to be done on LGBTQ issues. But we flat-out disagree with those who say the LGBTQ rights movement hasn’t made much progress. Three things are dramatically different now: we have a real voice, in the culture and in the political world; we have genuine, widespread allies; and so many more of us are no longer choosing to hide who we are.)

The two of us don’t live in America anymore. For the last three and a half years, we’ve been working remotely and traveling the world as digital nomads. We’ve lived in a series of foreign countries: Malta, Italy, Bulgaria, Georgia, Thailand, Vietnam, Switzerland, Mexico, and Turkey, with stops in many other places along the way.

In all of these of countries, even Switzerland, the LGBTQ rights movement is not where it is in America. People are sometimes still fighting for basic protections and very simple recognitions. Or they’re so oppressed that they’re barely able to fight at all.

Here in Turkey, where we’re living now, a conservative government on shaky ground has aligned itself with very regressive religious forces, and LGBTQ rights have been dramatically rolled back. Activists have been arrested, and the media are censored. Pride events have been banned since 2016.

But hopefully change is coming even here. It won’t come all at once, because that’s not how change ever happens, and it may not happen soon. But the world is interconnected now, more than ever before.

This is good and bad. The forces of openness and equality are on the rise, but so are the opposing forces of regression and fascism.

But here’s my Pride month wish: I hope that very soon, all LGBTQ people can get married if they want to, and they won’t have to do it five times before it finally takes.

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Brent Hartinger is a screenwriter and author, and one half of a gay digital nomad couple. Free newsletter: https://brentandmichaelaregoingplaces.substack.com/

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Brent Hartinger

Brent Hartinger is a screenwriter and author, and one half of a gay digital nomad couple. Free newsletter: https://brentandmichaelaregoingplaces.substack.com/