In a few words: it sucks.
Breakups are horrible things, even if, as in my case, they really need to happen. And getting a divorce, with the complications of being legally entangled with someone else and having to get government institutions involved in order to start rebuilding your life, is a unique brand of horrible. But getting a divorce after being denied the right to enter into a marriage, fighting for it in high-profile ways for years while being attacked by the Right and often mocked by the Left, and being seen by your community as a poster child for queer marriage? That is its own universe of awkward, devastating hell.
I found my way into a queer marriage by way of my college girlfriend, who was both my first relationship and who also, I would come to realize over the course of almost six years, was emotionally abusive. We fell very much in love in the spring of our sophomore year, when the trees were in full pink bloom and the air smelled like freshly cut grass warmed by the sun. I was so excited to finally be experiencing all of these relationship and sexuality “firsts” that I ignored the red flags. There never seemed to be enough time to slow down and have the space to think about my own needs in the relationship—my girlfriend was ever planning our relationship far into the distant future. For example, we got into a fight about whether I wanted to marry her two weeks into dating, spurred by seeing a wedding vendor at the first Pride festival we ever attended together.
The reasons why I ultimately agreed to marry her, and the nuances of what happened in our relationship over time, could fill a book. A major reason, though, was connected to the fact that we were planning to move to California together and that Proposition 8, the 2008 ballot initiative to take away same-sex marriage in California, was looming on the horizon. As the polling on Prop 8 grew bleaker and bleaker as the election approached, my girlfriend convinced me that we needed to get married in case Prop 8 passed. After arguing about this, a sense of carpe diem took over and, about a year and a half after we first met, I eloped with her to San Francisco. The next week, Prop 8 passed, and it would take years of multi-pronged social justice organizing and legal appeals before marriage equality would return to the state of California in 2013 and, on the same day in 2015, extend to the whole of the U.S.
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Fighting For My Queer Marriage
Let’s back up, though. The summer before Prop 8 passed, I volunteered in the rather conservative state capitol of Sacramento―where my parents live, as well as the home base for the Proposition 8 campaign―to go door-to-door talking to residents about marriage equality. I didn’t last long doing this. The worst memory that sticks out to me during this stint was knocking on the door of a family who had wooden decorations featuring Bible passages on their front door. As someone who grew up surrounded by conservative Evangelical Christians, this raised my spidey senses, and when a man came to the door, I realized he was in the middle of leading a prayer group in his living room. Once he understood what I was trying to talk to him about, he called me an “abomination” and closed the door in my face.
Similarly, at the Sacramento Pride festival that summer, pro-Prop 8 activists showed up to disrupt our celebration, bringing their kids dressed in heterosexually-coupled wedding outfits and holding huge signs about how we were filthy, disgusting, AIDS-carrying monsters whom God despised.
Just as I had conservatives on the Christian Right telling me I was a sinner who would cause straight people to try to marry their cats and salad bowls, I also would go on to have self-righteous acquaintances and colleagues on the Left tell me how conformist, neoliberal, and heteronormative it was for queers to get married. After I’d gotten married and started my Ph.D program in gender studies, I was subjected to constant comments from other grad students and gender studies scholars about how pathetic and stifling the institution of marriage was, how queers who got married were non-radical sell-outs, and so on. My daily life continued to be a hot-button political issue, and not just on the part of Fox News anchors.
While marching for years in protests and rallies and fundraising and signature gathering and watching my daily life be treated as a political football by reactionary and hateful forces, my relationship was also a hot mess. My wife felt isolated moving to California with me, where she had no friends or family, and felt alienated by the elitist, exclusive circles of academia, in which anyone outside academia’s orbit was seen as a nobody. She was perennially depressed, anxious, and moody, and we fought constantly on a range of topics, from our sex life to whether we wanted kids and so on. She deepened her habit of flirting with people both in front of me and behind my back despite our ostensibly monogamous relationship. She would berate me with cutting, below-the-belt insults during our screaming cry-a-thons and then apologize after the damage had already been done, making it about how she hated herself.
When we moved to the East Coast for my wife to start grad school in 2012—about four years after marrying and as more and more states were passing marriage equality legislation and voting for it at the ballot for the first time, all as the federal court cases snaked their way through layers of appeals—the cycles of emotional abuse only intensified. My wife became increasingly angry, callous, and emotionally removed, to the point where I would frequently be in tears over her behavior and she would barely take notice. She would tell me over and over again that I was “just so infuriating” while continuing her pattern of flirting with other people and spending more and more of her time with others. We decided to try an open relationship, and by the time I acted on this, I realized what I was missing out on and how I deserved to be treated. Following this realization, not long into 2013, our relationship spiralled irreparably into divorce territory.
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What I Learned From the Queer Divorce
One of the hardest parts of telling my social networks that I was getting a divorce is the extent to which my wife and I had been built up as the poster couple for queer wedded bliss. I wondered if I was being paranoid and narcissistic for thinking that I’d be shocking and disappointing so many people, but my concerns were verified by multiple friends telling me how depressing and jarring it had been to hear, including one person who confessed that the news actually made her cry and wonder whether true queer love can really exist. We were the (dysfunctional, working-class, 20-something, married-way-too-young) Ellen and Portia of our social world, and now it was over.
It was a strange and somewhat cruel twist of fate that on June 26, 2013, the day Prop 8 was officially struck down by the Supreme Court as part of the court’s ruling against the Defense of Marriage Act, I was sending in my divorce papers as joyous couples embraced in front of the Supreme Court and on the steps of city halls across the country.
Queer people’s lives are constantly under a microscope in ways that heterosexual people’s lives aren’t. The long fight for same-sex marriage in the U.S. illustrates how simply living our lives and making important decisions about our relationships was turned into something else: a literal referendum on the legitimacy of our relationships, the worthiness of the families we made, the right for us to take up space in this society so premised on heterosexual male control of women. In the midst of all that, a lot of queer people, myself included, operated from a place of scarcity, where we decided to take what we could get when we could get it, marrying because it might not be there the next day. That’s a tragically absurd place from which to approach a huge life decision like marriage, and when someone is in a toxic or abusive relationship, it makes for a particularly distressing combination.
But it wasn’t all bad. My divorce taught me the indescribable importance and power of listening to my intuition and fighting my way out of a situation so toxic it had become my listless normal. It taught me to wake up and realize that I deserved so much better. It was the beginning of my journey in realizing that it’s not up to me to save other people, that it’s unspeakably cruel to destroy myself for the comfort of anyone else. It showed me that even though straight people’s relationships are hella dysfunctional, two women in a relationship aren’t inherently feminist or empowering. And it taught me that I didn’t have to be ashamed of my own marriage dissolving despite my marriage equality activism. Indeed, my persistent belief in the power of love and dignity, enriched by my activism, is what saved me from my marriage, and this belief continues to buoy me in my current relationship.
Far from being hardened against love or even marriage, my heart has been softened, opened, grateful for my past experiences and what they’ve taught me about what love should be. My divorce brought me back to myself, to begin again, again and again and again.
[Featured Image: Two people looking into the camera with small masks held to their faces. One person has shoulder-length blond hair. The other person has dark brown hair. Behind them are purple dots. Source: pexels]