Nontraditional Relationships: Finding Validity without Marriage
By Donna Troka
I fell in love with my partner Jes while watching the movie Amélie at the Lefont Theater in Buckhead. Maybe it was because the film was based in Paris (the city of love), or maybe it was all the twinkling holiday lights outside the theater. I'm not completely sure what did it, but I am sure that on that day, I tripped and fell into love.
Fast-forward eight years. I have completed my PhD and started my career in faculty development and teaching. She has completed her JD and works as an immigration attorney. We moved to Brooklyn and back to Atlanta. We bought a house. We got a dog. What we have not done is get married.
People ask us all the time if we are married because we both wear a silver band on our left ring finger. We explain that the ring symbolizes our commitment to one another but that we did not have any type of ceremony to declare that commitment to our friends and family. More often I just say, "We are not the marrying type." But as I get older and my relationship with Jes continues to grow, I really struggle with finding ways to validate our relationship that don't include a wedding or commitment ceremony. Jes is not just my "friend" or "roommate," and after eight years, I don't think "girlfriend" fits either. Because of our gender presentation, "wife" doesn't work, so we go with "partner." But in this day and age, is a change from "girlfriend" to "partner" and a simple silver band enough to validate our relationship? The main source of my struggle are the changes during the last twenty years in what is now possible for gay, lesbian, and queer relationships.
I was eighteen years old when I started to come to terms with the fact that I was attracted to women. It was the second semester of my first year of college. As I moved into my twenties, discussions of gay marriage moved into the mainstream, and in 1996 Bill Clinton (whom I had voted for) signed the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which declared that no state had to treat same-sex relationships as marriages. Furthermore, marriage became legally defined as a union between one man and one woman. Philosophically, I understood the outrage I saw around me in the gay community, but at that time in my life, I was lucky to keep a girlfriend for six months, so marriage wasn't really on my mind. During the next decade, weddings and commitment ceremonies among my lesbian friends became very common. It was no longer the thing that some of my friends were doing; it became the thing that most of my friends were doing.
A few months ago, Jes and I were interviewed by a political scientist from New York who is doing research on states that have passed what are called "super DOMAs"—amendments that not only legally define marriage as between one man and one woman, but that also ensure that same-sex couples receive no benefits of marriage regardless of what they call it (whether civil unions or domestic partnerships).1 His theory was that there has been a mass exodus of gay people from states like Georgia to more accepting states. He was very surprised to find not only that we were happy living in Atlanta, even with a super DOMA on the books, but that we chose to move back to Atlanta after a two-year stint in New York. We explained that we moved back for friends, family, affordable living, and the beauty of the Southeast. We wanted to be able to buy a house with a little yard for a garden and pay off our student loans. These were our priorities. So we moved back to Georgia.
At the same time, what Jes learned in her family law class taught me a great deal about all the rights we are losing out on because we can't get married. What I fear, though, is that a focus only on gay marriage does not help the larger community of diverse relationships and households. As families become less and less "traditional" or "nuclear," we need to think about something other than marriage that extends to single and coupled peoples of all sexual orientations. Some people believe that reciprocal benefits are the way to go. This system allows two unmarried adults the right to share wealth, visit each other in the hospital, or make medical decisions for one another. It would apply to my best friend Azad (a straight man) and me the same way it would apply to my same-sex partner Jes and me. Others suggest companionate nonconjugal unions such as those we see in The Odd Couple or Golden Girls.2
Although these ideas might help to develop legal validity for nontraditional relationships, I still struggle with how to develop social recognition without getting married. Or, in simpler terms, how can we demonstrate and celebrate our love in a communal way? We do it all the time on an individual level: when Jes agrees to take the dog out before bed even though it's my turn or when I do the grocery shopping by myself so she can go for a bike ride. For me, these are our day- to-day "vows," but I still see some value in the witnessing that takes place in ceremonies. It a recognition of the work, intent, and commitment that goes into a relationship. It is a sharing of the joy that love brings. And it is a reminder of how we are part of many larger communities that hold us up and to which we contribute.
When I talk to other queer, unmarried couples, we bat around ideas that might work for us. Many of us are at or approaching our ten-year anniversaries and feel that some sort of anniversary party may do the trick. I like to think of it as a "love party," a gathering of people whom we love and who love us. It wouldn't have to be fancy, maybe a backyard barbeque with good food and drink and a few nice mixes on the iPod. And, truth be told, I wouldn't mind if there were some dancing.
This "love party" may confuse people (would they have to bring a gift?), and others might not be willing to take off work and travel to Atlanta for anything other than a wedding. I guess there is nothing I can do about that. In some ways, this is uncharted territory and these are the risks of trying something new. What I do feel certain about is that as the party winds down and I look around me, my eyes will well up with tears. The tears will be about the love between Jes and me, but they also will celebrate the world we have worked hard to build together.
Donna Troka 07G is the assistant director of the Center for Faculty Development and Excellence at Emory. She also is an active facilitator and participant in the University's Transforming Community Project.
1 The actual wording of the Georgia super DOMA is:
(a) This state shall recognize as marriage only the union of man and woman. Marriages between persons of the same sex are prohibited in this state.
(b) No union between persons of the same sex shall be recognized by this state as entitled to the benefits of marriage. This state shall not give effect to any public act, record, or judicial proceeding of any other state or jurisdiction respecting a relationship between persons of the same sex that is treated as a marriage under the laws of such other state or jurisdiction. The courts of this state shall have no jurisdiction to grant a divorce or separate maintenance with respect to any such relationship or otherwise to consider or rule on any of the parties' respective rights arising as a result of or in connection with such relationship.
2 See Lisa Duggan and Richard Kim, "Beyond Gay Marriage," http://www.thenation.com/doc/20050718/kim.