What My Young Friends Have Taught Me

In June, a friend’s relationship ended abruptly with a “Dear John” phone call, followed by a mood of dark despair. As he recited the memories and shattered plans that prolong his misery, he took me by complete surprise murmuring, “I guess I won’t get married.”

My attitude toward relationships is consciously cool—a variation on “they are nice while they last.” I had assumed my 20-something friend protected himself from pain by being prepared to move on. In fact nothing could be further from the truth; he hoped his affair would bloom into marriage and fully expected that it was only a short time until marriage equality would be law.

Marriage is the standard by which he judges relationships. Dating poses the same choices and challenges to him that it poses for any young person. Although exceptionally smart, my friend is fairly conventional—in odd ways that give him strengths. He was raised a Republican but a California one. He doesn’t believe that one political party is out to destroy gay rights; in fact, I think he may find the entire category of gay rights dubious. He thinks instead of human rights, and believes the world is basically friendly to gays—but he doesn’t expect society to be nurturing.

Whatever the reason, he doesn’t believe gay marriage will take years, but is something that will happen in the near future and without any great fuss. It may also be possible he doesn’t care if it becomes law. He goes to gay weddings already, even though they take place outside of Massachusetts.

I have another friend who is dating a Spaniard. They are valiantly attempting to wed in Spain which has marriage equality. The American’s family is fully supportive, but the Spanish side of the equation from a country village is proving difficult.

What I took for granted as a young adult—that being gay meant I wasn’t going to marry—is a relic of an earlier age. For young adults in the LGBT community, the passage from dating to marriage is a common dream, and like their straight friends they judge the strength of the relationship by whether it will lead to a wedding. It is a rite of passage their generation shares. A common understanding of commitment is increasingly shared by gay and straight couples alike. This evolution may have been apparent for some time to many readers; I am just now waking up and smelling the coffee.

Until the past few weeks, my thoughts about gay marriage were limited to older couples who had been in committed relationships for decades—ones essentially already married. I now believe that marriage is a central focus of post-high school gay dating.

At the Sheridan Square demonstration protesting the Court of Appeals decision last week I asked young people how gay marriage affected them personally. For me, Maurice Arias put a new spin on the issue. He became aware of gay feelings around 1980 when he was nine, but didn’t really understand what they meant. “When I was 12, I woke up and realized I wouldn’t be married, that’s pretty shocking,” he recalled. Family was what he knew best, and having one seemed like “the one thing you were going to do.” The realization was painful, and even as a person of color, he has most keenly felt discrimination as a gay man.

At 18, Michael Thelin already has “a few friends who aren’t quite at the age to get married but were considering it.” Intimate, lasting relationships made marriage an issue.

Of course, there were cynical responses as well in Sheridan Square. One young photographer waved his hand in disgust when asked how gay marriage affected him replying, “Who gives a shit?” with such vehemence that perhaps he was denying his anger and despair.

Older gays sometimes feel that the young are bored by activism and don’t understand the gains pioneers made on their behalf, but young people in the crowd did offer political takes. Some described the denial of marriage as a calculated political strategy aimed at tagging the LGBT community with the stigma of promiscuity and even disease. Commitment by gay couples challenges the hostile view that homosexual relationships are fleeting and fueled by a constant need for new sexual outlets.

Two young men still closeted enough to avoid giving their names offered sophisticated analyses of this phenomenon. One, a thoughtful young man dressed in a dark suit marking him as a young-man-who-will-be-a-success said, “Marriage remains a symbol of commitment and fidelity that is denied to the gay community.” While the gay community is pilloried for its transient relationships, the institution that most secures fidelity is forbidden, explained this 25-year-old.

A second anonymous man, 23, recently arrived from South Carolina, said with marriage equality “then there will be more monogamous relationships.” He saw it as a public health issue that could reduce disease and the potential for HIV transmission. He added wistfully, “It will make it easier to talk about sex,” something that seldom happened back home.

Molly Wang Rubenstein, who was raised by two mothers, had her own reason for supporting gay marriage. She found it difficult “going through high school and trying to explain her parents’ relationship.” After telling one friend her two mothers were partners, the friend “thought that they were business partners” which left her “puzzled” why they lived together. Rubenstein wondered aloud, “Why couldn’t I say it was my mom’s wife? It would make the explanations so much easier.”

What makes marriage so important is that it makes the rules for courtship, the nature of commitment, and the skills for maintaining a relationship through the good and the bad widely understood. Once relationships are placed in this framework, it becomes much easier for the individual to choose “the right thing to do.” I have recently been surprised that young gay adults are applying their understanding of this framework even before society has legitimized their role in it. As a grassroots phenomenon, marriage equality strengthens the ties between the young and the gay rights movement.

The involvement of the young in this issue has not gained as much attention as the plight of couples who have been together for decades and want to tie the knot. But for the young, proof that discrimination exists in our society can be found in this obvious fact—I can’t get married but my friends can. That offers a unique opportunity to rekindle the cause of gay rights in a new generation.