In early February I left home in Oakland, Calif., for a one-month writing fellowship in upstate New York. A few days later I got a frantic call from Katrine, my girlfriend of seven years. "Honey! Come home quick!" she said. "They're doing gay weddings in San Francisco! Let's get married!"
"Again?" I asked. Katrine and I were already the most-married couple we knew. We'd exchanged vows and rings for the first time two years ago in February, alone in bed a la John and Yoko (but without the press coverage); again the next year at a celebration our friends and family threw for us, officiated by my Baptist minister son; and once more when we registered as California domestic partners a few months later. We registered for our fourth -- and, we thought, final -- marriage when we visited Katrine's family in France last summer, where we applied without fanfare for le Pacte Civil de Solidariti, which offers more legal rights than concubinage (domestic partnership) but fewer than mariage.
"For real this time!" Katrine said. "This might be our only chance!"
There was no TV where I was, and the nearest newspaper was a 10-minute walk away, but I hardly needed the news feed to be aware of this turn of events. Every time I plugged the phone cord into my laptop I found new wedding announcements bouncing around my in-box. I hadn't seen that much excitement -- or that many exclamation points -- on my computer screen since Ellen came out on national TV.
"It's official!!" wrote the gay dads across the street, whose unofficial commitment ceremony I'd attended many years ago.
"We did it!!" wrote a friend in her 20s, enclosing a photo of herself and her blushing, butch bride toasting each other with donated champagne on the bouquet-strewn steps of San Francisco City Hall.
"All day long I hand people their rings and cry, cry and hand people their rings. So much joy ... it's restoring my faith in the human race," wrote a straight, normally self-contained friend who'd served as a volunteer witness at 24 ceremonies and counting.
"Great news! Louise and I got married!" bubbled my agent, who'd waited in the rain for six hours to marry her girlfriend of 17 years, with whom she was now co-editing a photo book chronicling the wedding blitz. Amy had delivered plenty of "great news" to me over the years, but no book deal had ever made her sound this happy. "It felt so right -- so much bigger than the two of us. You should come home, Mer, even if it's just for one day," she urged me. "This could be the best thing you ever get a chance to do."
I cited the price of last-minute plane tickets. I maintained that the fellowship was the chance of a lifetime, too. I reminded Katrine and everyone else that she and I were already as married as two people could be. When the mayor of New Paltz, N.Y., started performing same-sex weddings I extended a perfunctory tit-for-tat invitation of my own ("Honey! Come here quick! They're marrying gay people in New York!") and was uncharacteristically acquiescent when Katrine proved no more willing than I to cross the continent for a quickie queer wedding. Marriage is all about compromise, I proclaimed loftily, when San Francisco started offering same-sex marriage appointments and Katrine got us one for the next available date, seven weeks later.
"It's not like you to be so unromantic," wrote a friend who knows that "uncompromising" is my not-so-secret middle name. "Or so un-activist," she added. "What's up?"
My friend had a point. Why wasn't I hopping aboard the lesbo love train?
As the happy virus spread from state to state, I went on reading the daily front-page gay wedding stories, gazing at the daily front-page gay wedding photos, waiting for a stab of sorrow, a ripple of regret, a frisson of romantic or activist fervor to kick in. It never happened. Instead, I felt a growing and disturbing sense of, well, disorientation.
I'd had that feeling before: seeing the once-militant gay-pride march morph into the faggots-are-fun gay parade, watching "ER's" Dr. Weaver having a baby with her girlfriend on one major network and Ellen DeGeneres hosting her own talk show on another, hearing the pundits remark that supporting same-sex civil unions had become a mainstream position. Being warmly greeted on Sunday mornings by my son's Christian church-mates, who know that I'm his lesbian mother.
I felt I should be relishing these fruits, so to speak, of the gay movement's labors. Instead, as one city after another started issuing same-sex marriage licenses, as the progress of the gay rights movement became nightly dinnertime conversation, as the straight people around me started casually conversing about their same-sex flings and fantasies - as the gender-inclusive dream I'd spent much of my life fighting for seemed to be coming true -- I had a strange, nostalgic longing for what I'd known to be the natural order of things: hets on the inside with the door locked behind them, homos on the outside, banging to get in. Even if we weren't really sure we wanted all those trappings of boring-ass straight life; even if we secretly liked the compulsory creativity of our "commitment ceremonies" and fabulous family configurations; even if we wouldn't have dreamed of asking the state to sanctify our love (unless, of course, it refused to), this was the world as we knew it -- the us-vs.-them rules of the one game we'd been invited to play.
The goal of every social-change movement -- or (gag me with a chakra) personal-growth process -- is its own obsolescence. So why wasn't I celebrating all the gains, both personal and political? Maybe because I felt I had too much to lose. For better and for worse, living as an "out" mom, an "out" neighbor, an "out" writer had given me an identity and an address to go with it; a sometimes scary but stable spot on the outskirts of town, on the margins of the mainstream. There's a steep price to be paid for being gay in America, and the compensation package -- at least for those coastal big-city dwellers who can take advantage of it -- is what those hard-earned dues buy us. Being gay got me the secret password to the in (out) places only queer people go, the in (out) jokes only queer people know. Why would I want to share those membership benefits with hets who haven't paid to join the club?
And as I settle into middle age, being gay has become more than a built-in, nearly effortless expression of my activism -- it's become one of the few cool things about me. But how cool can it be to be gay when macho straight guys swoon and preen, allowing themselves to be fluffed and petted by screaming "Queer Eye" queens on national TV, and giggling gay-day marchers chant, "We're here! We're queer! We've got our own TV shows, Mary!"? How cool can it be to be gay when the love that dared not speak its name makes lead news headlines and campaign hay? If the world is as ready as it seems to open up and let us in, will we -- will I -- lose the edge we got from being out?
My greatest hopes and worst fears were realized when I came home to a changed world -- well, a changed Bay Area, anyway. Suddenly it was retro to be hetero. Straight friends I ran into asked if I'd gotten married, eager to horn in on the joy; gay friends displayed marriage certificates and wedding photos where "Hate Is Not a Family Value" posters and rainbow flags had once hung on their walls.
A week after I came home from the retreat I went to open a joint savings account at our local Bank of America. "My wife and I are saving for a vacation," I told the young, meticulously manicured, straight-appearing teller. I sneaked a peek to gauge her response, and witnessed ... absolutely none. "Oh, did you get married in San Francisco?" she asked nonchalantly, bringing to a screeching halt a lifetime of uncomfortable silences, defensive conversational maneuvers and elaborate explanations. "Even though Katrine's not here to sign, I'll put both of your names on the account," she offered before I answered. "After all, you guys are married."
Since our first wannabe wedding I'd made a point of publicly referring to Katrine as my wife, gulping down my fears to face the dry cleaner's confusion, the haircutter's horror, the mortgage broker's veiled hostility in the interest of a bit of political provocation. Now the four-letter word I'd winced to use when I was legally married to a man but tossed around like confetti when I was illegally married to a woman -- the word that only a few weeks ago had sparked nervous laughter at best, animosity at worst -- triggered friendly smiles, congratulations or no reaction at all. Now I had something even stickier to swallow than my fear: my ambivalence about the kinder, gentler, less homophobic world I'd been so sure I wanted. Who will I be, I found myself wondering, if it's normal to be who I am?
I didn't have long to wonder before reality kicked in. My first clue was the sound of my sweetheart calling me to her desk, her voice choked with tears. Together we read the e-mail that had just appeared on her screen. The sender was the San Francisco city clerk. The subject line was "Supreme Court Decision." The date was March 12, four weeks before our wedding date. The message was brusque.
"By order of the California Supreme Court, the San Francisco County Clerk has been ordered to discontinue issuance of same-sex marriage licenses. Therefore all previously scheduled same-sex appointments are now cancelled."
"I knew it wouldn't last," said Katrine. "I wanted to really marry you," she cried.
"I wanted to really marry you too," I answered, surprised by the clutch in my throat that told me it was true. It struck me then that my ambivalence might have been more self-protective than I knew. Maybe I didn't want to join the party in case the neighbors complained and the cops shut it down. Maybe I found it easier to live with the world as it was -- homophobia and all -- than to risk living with the perilous hope that it might actually get better.
As the love fests were aborted in one city after another and the front-page profiles of ecstatic newlyweds were replaced by stories of honeymoons harpooned by homophobia, Katrine and I decided to console ourselves with a weekend honeymoon. Checking in at a bed-and-breakfast in a tourist town three hours from home, we instinctively assumed the position: standing an ambiguous distance apart, looking at each other with ambiguous eyes, speaking to each other in ambiguous tones. For the next two days -- hesitant to hold hands as we strolled through the picturesque streets, scoping out the vibe in each restaurant before we fed each other bits of food, kissing only in the privacy of our overpriced, Laura-Ashley-on-steroids room -- we were painfully reminded of how many risks we still take, how many prejudices we still challenge, just by being ourselves outside the Bay Area post-wedding-boom bubble.
Even inside it, where life is about as same-sex-safe as it gets; even now, when the Bay Area's still in the blush of mass-wedding afterglow, I don't kiss Katrine goodbye on the front porch if the neighbor's watching. I write an acknowledgment to her in every book I publish, but the bio on the more visible jacket flap always says, "Meredith Maran lives in Oakland," as if I live there alone. When I quote or mention Katrine in the talks I give, I sometimes tell the classic "queer lie for the straight guys," referring to her as my wife only when I'm confident that being gay won't keep my message from being heard, or me from being invited back.
Same-sex sitcoms, homo home decorating shows, gala gay days and other sure signs of progress notwithstanding, being gay is still far too exciting for most people -- including me -- in most places most of the time. Until that changes, we'll have being bored to look forward to.