When I came out to my family as a lesbian, there was a lot I didn’t have to worry about. My parents have always been queer-friendly and supportive, so I knew I wouldn’t be disowned or shunned. I also knew any partners I brought home would be welcomed. My situation is an incredibly lucky one, a privilege. Yet even expecting this positive reception, I still waited more than a year after I came out to myself to share the news with my parents.
The one big fear that held me back: that they’d be disappointed. Not because I’m gay, but because their expectations would have to shift. They’d been dreaming of watching me walk down the aisle in a big, white dress toward a groom waiting at the altar, and I was about to shit all over that.
When I finally told my parents that I am a lesbian—drunkenly, at my own birthday dinner—both my mom and dad were nothing but supportive. It’s never been a problem: They’ve welcomed my current girlfriend with open arms, and life has gone on.
That’s in large part because being queer no longer means automatic exclusion from the compulsory expectation of marriage, 1.5 kids and a starter home in the ‘burbs. I will not have to live my life in the shadows, and my parents’ dream of one day seeing me in a white dress has not been spoiled. It’s 2020, and we queers get to be just as boring as the straights. Whether this is a blessing or a curse is something I’m still trying to decide.
On the one hand, it’s a big “duh.” Of course we should be able to get married. Of course! But on the other hand, staring me in the face is the question of why? What good does it do for us to buy into an institution steeped in patriarchy, capitalism and other systems that are fundamentally at odds with queerness as a political identity?
Your mileage may vary, it should be said. I’m white, cis and come from a standard-issue nuclear family with parents that are still happily married. A certain kind of life was modelled for me from birth, and it is so strongly instilled that it softens even my most fiercely held beliefs about what it means to be queer. That I’m in a position to experience such internal conflict over matrimony is a privilege in itself. Still, I struggle.
I was 13 when gay marriage became legal in Ontario, where I live, in 2003. I didn’t yet know I was a lesbian, just that I was definitely not straight. But whether the new legislation applied to me or not, it felt important, fundamental. I felt pride knowing my province was the first in my country, and among the first in the world, to recognize that queer couples deserve the right to get married. That victory was thanks to elder queers like Michael Leshner and Michael Stark, the first couple to marry in Toronto and longstanding advocates in this battle for civil rights. Two years later, same-sex marriage was legalized nationally, making Canada only the fourth country in the world to do so.
Even in 2015, when the U.S. legalized same-sex marriage nationally, I wept. Each of these wins felt big and needed and hard-fought; each is because queers older than I wanted life to be different for me. They wanted a future for me that they couldn’t have in their own youth. Even as I question the usefulness and relevance of marriage as an institution, I am grateful to those who fought for the world my generation inherited.
Because of them, my experience as a queer millennial is unprecedented. The entire time I’ve been out, I have had the legal right to marry my partner, and the right to have a kid using donor sperm or through adoption. Today, teenagers who come out in Canada, as well as citizens of many other countries, will never know a time when these domestic rights were in question—and that matters. Queers have always found ways to partner for life and start families, but having those rights enshrined by law is more than symbolic—it concretely includes queers in our most traditional public institutions and protects them.
I know these changes were necessary. But I still wonder if we made these traditions queerer, or just made ourselves straighter.
When I started dating women I had a sort of romantic renaissance. Once I’d thrown out heterosexuality, I was giddy to see what else I could send to the garbage. First to go was monogamy. In my baby dyke years, I revelled in stretching my heart as far as it could go. I never adopted the identity of “polyamorous,” though many of my dates did, but I dated in a way that was limited by my calendar availability rather than convention.
Tinder was a buffet of possibility and I’d find myself enjoying the company of several people at a time, appreciating how each had something different to offer. One night I could be grinding on a dancefloor with one person, the next night I could have drinks with a new date and the next I could have a regular rendezvous with someone who made me feel all sappy inside. I’m not going to pretend I was a pro at open relationships—and I surely made a few (or more) blunders along the way—but it all felt so right, and so good, and decidedly queer. And digging into this side of myself also opened doors that had never felt accessible to me when I identified as straight. Along with non-monogamy, sex clubs and kink meetups also became a part of my life.
There’s a power in breaking convention while queer, because simply being queer is breaking convention. When the world at large excluded us, we made our own spaces, traditions and relationships. We defined what a loving queer couple (or throuple, or more) and our family looked like. We became masters of invention out of necessity, and from our oppression sprung some of the things about queerness I love the very most—like how we break stereotypical gender roles and celebrate ourselves as living, breathing victories. But of course, there are also queer folks who want nothing more than convention and the aforementioned 1.5 kid lifestyle.
And here’s where the tension lives. We should legally be allowed to marry and make families—but should we always want to? Queers have historically found power, community and freedom by giving a stiff middle finger to convention and defining love and family for ourselves. Take the history of womyn’s lands for example—bands of lesbians who built their own communities steeped in 1970s lesbian separatism. That movement has a history of gender essentialism and bisexual and trans exclusion, but it was also built on that radical idea that all we need is our own queer selves. A commune of lesbians living and loving together, possibly with a lush garden and miniature goats? Sign me up.
On the other hand, I’m not prepared to shame queers who crave convention, even if it comes from hetero ideals. Marriage isn’t just a symbolic move: It cements protections and rights in law. Before legalization, how many queer couples faced the unimaginable grief of being denied access to a partner dying in the hospital? How many men and trans folks dying of AIDS-related illnesses were kept from those they loved most? How many lifelong partners have been systematically excluded from wills, from funerals, from chosen family?
As I’ve gotten older and have found a partner who ticks all my boxes and then some, some conventions also seem more appealing to me. The truth is that I’d really like to get married. I want a pretty dress and someone more skilled than I am to make me pretty, and to walk down the aisle to see my bride waiting at the other end. I want a party that’s all about my big, gay love story, and I want to wear a ring that bonds me to the woman I want to be my forever.
And it’s gross! I feel really gross about it. It nags at me that I’d want something so traditional, so unqueer. It makes me feel like I’m betraying my own politics, my own community. I’ve always been more the type that believes oppressive systems should be blown up instead of slowly improved from the inside, but here I am bookmarking cute lesbian wedding photos. It’s an identity crisis that comes back to how my generation is at a crossroads we’ve never seen before. Friction is inevitable.
I know these desires spring at least in part from how I was raised, where marriage and a family is just what you do. I’m on-board with monogamy at this point—even a lifetime of it. (Again, totally gross.) But I’m grateful that the queers who came before me fought for my right to have a big, dumb wedding.
I have other bones to pick with the same-sex marriage revolution—primarily, how some act like its legalization was the be-all and end-all of LGBTQ2 civil rights. Black trans women are still being murdered, queer kids are still being kicked out of their homes and access to gender-affirming medical resources isn’t what it should be. We are not done. That said, I can’t be mad at the progress that’s been made.
Still, I’m not packing my bags for the suburbs just yet. I don’t want kids, and neither does my girlfriend. Though I want to marry her one day, I don’t want the full package deal with the minivan and PTA meetings—and that’s where I’ve found peace in that question of convention. Part of me still resents that queers aren’t spared from the expectations of traditional life, as thankful as I am to be given the opportunity. But I have the privilege, unlike any generation before me, of picking and choosing how I want my future to look. I could choose to be a poly lesbian power couple with five kids, or I could be married with a pack of dogs, or I could choose single life if I so wanted. I have options, and so do you—and that’s a beautiful thing.
A few weeks ago, at a funeral, I saw my extended family for the first time in a while. It was a sad occasion, and more than a few people commented that it would be nice to see each other for something happy next time. The talk soon turned to marriage and then to me—was I going to tie the knot soon? I sheepishly confirmed that, yes, we’ve talked about it. I’d be lying if I said it didn’t make me happy to see the smiles on my family’s faces—to know they are as down for my big, gay wedding as I am, even if it was also a validation of convention.
I’ve found a happy medium between expectations and my own queer yearnings, a place I can not only live in but thrive in. But progress doesn’t stop—not here, not with my generation straddling a time before and after marriage rights. I was given the right to pick and choose. Perhaps the queers who come after me won’t feel like they have to pick at all.