I recently travelled to Thunder Bay for my grandmother’s funeral. The day I arrived, her obituary appeared in the local paper. Survivors’ spouses were listed beside their names. Nick, my partner of 10 years, was not named.
It turns out that my aunt had submitted the obituary, and had opted to use marriage as the criterion for inclusion. My father had challenged her on it, but ultimately conceded.
They were both exhausted and stressed, planning a funeral on short notice while dealing with their own grief. I told my father I was upset, but left it at that. I did not want to divert any of our attentions from the matters at hand. I would take the high road, support my father and put the whole issue out of mind.
Ah, but it wasn’t so easy. I felt disoriented, second-guessing the true feelings and motivations of my parents.
My family has accepted the gay thing for so long that the obituary broadsided me. My parents treat Nick, as much as I can discern, as they treat the spouses of my siblings. But my sister raised a historical comparison, from a time when all was not so well.
Nine years ago, I had intended to bring Nick to my brother’s wedding to introduce him to my family. My brother asked me not to bring him. I told him I wouldn’t be coming, either. Much squabbling ensued, and my family appealed to me to respect my brother’s wishes. At the time, I’d grown tired of my role as an irritating, in-your-face angry young man, and so I went alone. I’ve regretted the decision ever since. You can’t honour someone else’s relationship while demeaning your own.
In the years since, everyone in my family has come to know and love Nick. But I wondered what unspoken feelings were revealed in the obituary omission.
I also wondered if I had failed to communicate the importance of my relationship to my parents, who know me as someone who prefers to live outside tradition. Nick and I have never had a commitment ceremony or made any other sort of declaration. We discussed an occasion to mark our tenth anniversary, but have deferred it, wanting to avoid anything resembling the public displays of vanity and self-absorption which mark the average wedding spectacle.
But overwhelmingly, I felt hurt. And as the weekend wore on, that emotion won the day. The morning of the funeral, I decided I needed to let my parents know where I stood.
There were tears. Oh yes, and wailing. I told my father that I had come to support him, but that the incident was preventing me from providing that support. I told them that we cannot go halfway when accepting people into our family. They comforted me, and said they were glad I had opted to make an issue out of it. And that it won’t happen again.
My father empathized by comparing my relationship to his marriage to my mother. Would I have avoided this situation had I been legally married? Would marriage show that our relationships are serious and real and important, not to be tossed aside during times of crisis or on official occasions like weddings and funerals?
Proponents of gay marriage raise serious issues like adoption and alimony, but the truth is that you don’t need marriage to get those things. Gay marriage is about acceptance, it’s about asking society to acknowledge that our relationships are important and valid. I was feeling with crushing intensity the devastation wrought when that acceptance is lacking.
I remain uncomfortable thinking of my relationship as a marriage. There was a sliver of me that felt liberated by the sight of my name appearing alone. It meant that I remained an individual, a whole person, not half a couple. Another sliver felt that, by engaging the issue, I was shoehorning myself into a relationship model that didn’t fit.
But my discomfort doesn’t mean that my relationship should be dismissed. That’s the whole problem with marriage – it’s too exclusive, even when we let the homos in.
However we define our relationship, Nick is a part of my family. All families are chosen families, and they need to have the moral courage to stand up for their choices. Gay marriage won’t change that.
* David Walberg will moderate a discussion on gay marriage at 8pm, Thu, Oct 24 at Buddies In Bad Times (12 Alexander St). Admission is free. See the next item for more on marriage.
David Walberg is Publisher for Xtra.