The Sit-In at the Altar: No ‘I Do’ Till Gays Can Do It, Too
By KAYLEEN SCHAEFER
December 3, 2006
LAST July, Kelly White and her boyfriend became engaged. They had a cozy picnic of wine and cheese on a hill before he presented her with a watermelon-flavor Ring Pop and asked her to marry him. “I’d rather not say if he got down on one knee or not,” she said. “It’s embarrassing.”
But they won’t end up at the altar anytime soon: they said they would not marry until gay and lesbian couples are also allowed to.
“I usually explain that I wouldn’t go to a lunch counter that wouldn’t allow people of color to eat there, so why would I support an institution that won’t allow everyone to take part,” said Ms. White, 24, a law student at the University of California, Davis. “Sometimes people don’t buy that analogy.”
Whether it makes sense or not, some heterosexual couples, mostly in their in 20s and 30s, are protesting the inability of gay and lesbian couples to marry by putting off their own marriage. Unless wedded bliss is available to everyone, in every state, they say, they want no part of it.
These couples have gone mostly unnoticed (except by parents waiting to send out wedding announcements). Then Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie took up the cause. In an Esquire article in October called “(My List) 15 Things I Think Everyone Should Know,” Mr. Pitt writes, “Angie and I will consider tying the knot when everyone else in the country who wants to be married is legally able.”
They are not the first celebrity couple to have the idea. In 2005 on the television show “Extra,” Charlize Theron said of her relationship with the actor Stuart Townsend, “We said we would get married the day that gays and lesbians can get married, when that right is given to them.”
A number of the heterosexual holdouts live in California, where in February 2004, Gavin Newsom, the mayor of San Francisco, issued marriage licenses to same-sex couples. Some couples cite that act as the catalyst for their protest.
Some of those delaying marriage are cynical types who seem happy to stick it out. They think the idea of marriage is antiquated and want to be tied to a spouse as much they might want to move in with the in-laws after the honeymoon.
“I didn’t have the wedding fantasies some little girls have,” said Sarah Augusto, 25, a sociology graduate student in Davis, Calif., who has been committed to Jon Bell, 26, a museum exhibit designer, since college graduation three years ago.
But some honestly wish they would walk the aisle, Mr. Bell for one. “Sarah has changed the way I thought about things a ton,” he said. “I was really excited about getting married. Going into high school that was the goal, to meet a nice girl and get married to her.”
Gay and lesbian organizations working to have same-sex marriage legalized don’t officially sanction what these couples are doing. They said the gesture is sweet, but don’t want anyone to put off marriage.
“The people we represent want to get married,” said Susan Sommer, the senior counsel at Lambda Legal. “It’s not like we encourage different-sex couples who want to get married not to. We recognize the legal rights of getting married and the cultural benefits.”
Molly McKay, a founder of Marriage Equality U.S.A. in Oakland, said its goal is to increase the number of people who have the protections that come with marriage. “We love weddings,” Ms. McKay said.
Those delaying marriage also meet resistance from friends and relatives who say they are using politics to avoid real commitment. Some of Mr. Bell’s family and friends say he and Ms. Augusto are not serious about their relationship because they haven’t exchanged marriage vows.
“I don’t feel like I can meet anyone more wonderful than her,” Mr. Bell said. “But I can’t clearly communicate that to everyone around me until we’re married. I think that my family thinks that once we love and care for each other enough, that our politics will break down.”
Mary Lunetta’s grandmother, 77, doesn’t understand why her granddaughter is putting off marriage, either. Ms. Lunetta, 24, a community studies major at the University of California, Santa Cruz, explained to her grandmother that she is waiting to make it official with Max Hartman, her boyfriend of five years, because her aunt, who is a lesbian, can’t marry.
Ms. Lunetta said she did not expect her grandmother to get it or agree. “And she didn’t.” Her grandmother, though, did tell her about Mr. Pitt and Ms. Jolie. “They’re copying us,” Ms. Lunetta said.
According to the Government Accountability Office, a marriage license comes with 1,138 federal rights, including the ability to claim a dead spouse’s Social Security benefits and to make medical decisions for a spouse in an emergency. Massachusetts is the only state that allows gay marriage. In 44 states it is forbidden by statute, constitution or both. Still, most unmarried heterosexual couples acknowledge that it would be easy for them, unlike a same-sex couple, to pass for husband and wife if they need to.
“As we continue together, people will just assume we’re married,” Mr. Hartman said. “If I’m sick in the hospital, and she says she’s my wife, they’re not going to ask for documentation.”
Most of these couples don’t have children, but said they wouldn’t cave in when they did.
The stance tends to be entirely personal. Holding a picket sign in front of the local courthouse isn’t on the agenda.
But some couples see no point in resisting marriage unless they’re going to publicize it. They do so mostly by correcting people who assume they are legally married.
Sam and Fawn Livingston-Gray of Portland, Ore., have the same last name and wear matching white-gold rings engraved with Celtic designs. Still, when someone refers to Sam, 31, a computer programmer, and Fawn, 33, an administrative assistant, as husband and wife, they point out the mistake, even if it’s the guy at the car-rental counter.
“I go out of my way to say we’re not,” Ms. Livingston-Gray said. “It’s a really important dialogue with people I wouldn’t get to talk to otherwise.”
Referring to each other as “partner” usually helps avoid the misperception, but that can be tricky, too. When Ms. Augusto, the sociology graduate student, speaks of her partner, people ask if she’s a lesbian. “I say, ‘My partner is male,’ ” she said. “ ‘We’re not getting married because it’s not a universal right, and I feel that the word boyfriend trivializes our relationship.’ It’s really shocking to the people I tell that to. Probably as shocking as if I were a lesbian.”
Ms. McKay of Marriage Equality U.S.A. said heterosexuals can be instrumental in the push for gay marriage. “It’s a very powerful decision to stand up against discrimination in a system where you benefit,” she said. “There’s no more powerful way of saying, ‘I object.’ ”
Not everyone appreciates the sacrifice. There are gay people who oppose marriage and the conventional family values supposed to go with it. But those delaying marriage insist they are not trying to force marriage on anyone.
“Maybe they think there are other issues we should be working on,” Ms. Livingston-Gray said. “But gay marriage has been a wedge issue for me. This right is really important and has been used to wedge people apart.”
Even in Massachusetts, at least one couple holds out. Andrea Ayvazian, 55, a United Church of Christ minister, and Michael Klare, 64, a professor, who have been together since 1985, are still choosing “not yet” as same-sex couples all around them are saying “I do.” (Their 18-year-old son teases them for being so stubborn.) “We had long ago decided that we’re not just going to break ranks over one state,” Mr. Klare said.
As for Ms. White, she ate the candy ring her boyfriend gave her up on the hill in Santa Cruz in July. After all, she said, “It’s a very long engagement period.”