Why I Cannot Marry My Husband, Yet
Breanna Anderson — September 25, 2009
One morning early in March 2004, my partner received a phone call from her mother, directing us to get down to Oregon and get married. Quick!
Just a few months before, we drove to San Francisco and just missed the narrow window of opportunity offered by the rogue gay marriage movement there. I remembered standing on the steps of the beautiful San Francisco city hall, scene of many an historic moment in gay rights history, with only a lone Fox news truck interviewing a few straggling folks clustered about. They had just ceased issuing licenses the day before. It was a nice road trip at least.
We knew that this next time our opportunity would likely be fleeting. We knew full well that any license issued would be the subject of controversy and injunctions. Still, we had our orders, our love for each other and a strong commitment to the cause.
Ryan and I had been together since 1995. She has chosen her new name at this time and I helped her choose her new last name “Blackhawke”. It was edgy and androgynous and I was forever explaining to people that my partner Ryan was a “she”. In 2004 we had been together for almost nine years, almost as long as I had been together with my previous wife. I had been married to a woman before, with great celebration and fanfare, at the tender age of 22, to a 20 year old girl I had known little more than a year. I remained faithfully and happily married to her for over 10 years. By contrast it was absurd that as a mature woman of 47, knowing far better what marriage really meant, now I could not get married to the person I loved, with whom I had spent many years and with whom I had so much already invested.
Way back, in 1992, when I claimed my birthright to live as a woman, to live true to my essence and identity, I knew full well that I was up for a fight; a fight for my rights, my dignity, my job, possibly my life. I knew that I would lose some things in the process. Some I wanted to lose, others I knew I might lose despite my wishes. In the end I lost the relationship I so dearly cherished with my wife. We started a new relationship and still continuing relationship as friends and co-parents but it was not the same and I felt keenly the loss of it. I lost what I had of my relationship with my family and some friends. These are hard losses but there is no court that you can go to for recompense for such losses of the heart.
My rights, my dignity however, are not negotiable and I never felt that I should need to take a step down on any social ladder as a result of my choice to live as I wished. Such a thought was and is deeply sexist, heterosexist, anti-feminist, anti-humanist and anti-democratic. My life is, in a sense, a laboratory test case for equality. Keep everything else the same: same person, same affectional orientation (toward women), same knowledge, same skills, same personality and judgment, just change a letter on my ID, (ok my first name too), change the door I go through to pee and maybe a little refresh of my wardrobe and see what happens…
The personal, social, emotional, physical, financial, romantic and yes, legal implications of my decision and subsequent transition from male to female were numerous and dramatic. One thing that stayed the same for me however was my attraction to women. Upon my coming out I discovered not only a vibrant and supportive Transgender community in Seattle through Ingersoll Gender Center but also the wonderful and generally supportive lesbian community. Dykes quickly became my role models of how a woman can be powerful and self possessed.
So, I immediately dived right in and found great satisfaction and sense of community working on the issues of the day for Lesbian, Gay, Bi and of course Transgender people. First, through Ingersoll, it was to help nuture that first existential spark, to know that you are not alone and you are not insane and that you are among friends and family. Next with Q-Patrol, it was the simple right to be safe and feel safe on the streets of our own community. Later with Freedom Day Committee producing Seattle’s Pride events, the cause was visibility, solidarity, including solidarity between the LGB and T communities and defining the ethics and boundaries of our community. At the time, our equal rights in the workplace and accommodations seemed to be tenuous even within our progressive state. My own contributions were miniscule compared to those of so many others who are my heroes and mentors but my sense of investment in my community grew with each engagement. In what was for me “the early years” of the early 1990s we were fighting for the most basic of employment and civil rights. The cause of same-sex marriage seemed quixotic at best and irrelevant or retrograde and hetero-normative at worst and its activists were often regarded as political crackpots, cranks or crypto-conservatives.
By 2004, it seemed the clouds were clearing. We were less than two years from passing our Trans-inclusive Washington State “Gay rights” law and the Andersen case was challenging Washington state’s “Defense of Marriage Act”. Our eyes were on the next prize.
So that morning of March 22, 2004, we were determined to claim what was ours by natural right.
After the familiar drive to Portland, we found our way to a non-descript concrete government office in a light industrial neighborhood of Portland. The crowds and press of the first days were gone. The offices where quiet and only a few folks milled about in the lobby area. The clerks behind the Plexiglas windows were polite but delightfully blasé and matter-of-fact, providing us the license application paperwork without comment. They were similarly efficient and straight-forward in processing and granting our license. This sense of normalcy felt reassuring and just.
We had left in a rush on a workday and as such didn’t have time to bring along friends or family as witnesses. It was just the two of us. A minister of the Universal Life Church was solemnizing weddings in the concrete colonnade facing a noisy side-street. A couple of videographers were our witnesses. It was about the most unromantic and impersonal setting possible. But when we hurriedly took our vows before strangers in a strange, noisy and spartan place it still choked me up and moistened my eyes. The emotion of the event, completely devoid of trappings and romance though it was, took me by surprise. What I had told myself was a political act was actually very personal and profound.
Over the following year, we watched the news reports from Oregon as the marriages where predictably halted within a month of our trip. Court cases and ballot measures naturally followed and finally on April 14, 2005, The Oregon State Supreme Court decided in Li & Kennedy vs. State of Oregon, ruling that Multnomah County lacked the authority to remedy a perceived violation of the Oregon Constitution. We soon received a refund check in the mail for our $60.00 marriage license fee.
LGBT rights activists in Washington State were taking careful note and learning lessons from the bold actions and quick reversals from our neighbors to the south. Our avowed opponents would not stand by as we slipped a quick one by them. Cautious, consensus-based Washingtonians were going to take an incrementalist approach. It took a long time in the case of basic equal rights protections but we did get there with all aboard. On April 10, 2007, the Washington House and Senate passed a Domestic Partnership law after a few key Republican lawmakers, Bill Finkbeiner of Kirkland for one, switched sides on the vote.
On July 23, 2007 the day that the state opened their doors to same-sex couples seeking recognition for their relationships, we were there in line. I think we were maybe the 25th couple in line. It was a great day of celebration, sharing the event with so many friends and family enjoying this important political and very personal event together. Little did we know then what tremendous changes and challenges were about to be presented to our relationship and sense of ourselves as individuals in just a few short months.
In the first few days of September 2007, over Labor Day weekend, I attended a few events at Gender Odyssey, a major annual Transgender conference focused largely, if not exclusively on masculine-identified transgender people. I suggested to Ryan that she come along with me to a few upcoming events. She responded with an adamant No! I was taken aback by the emphatic tone of her response. As we talked it through, it emerged that she was anxious that she might uncover things about herself there that she was afraid to face, things that she felt that she, and I could not handle.
In retrospect, I recalled his occasional musing to me about “I wonder what it would be like to be a guy for a day” or variants thereof. My answer was usually something along the lines of, “Oh, I’ve been there and done that and I really don’t think you would like it that much.” I now realize that beneath all the gender irony and winking, I was telling her, don’t go there! I know that she understood the implicit message I was sending her and I think that push-back, among other things, kept him in a box for a long time.
As we explored her/his emerging realization I was not overly enthused by the prospect but I knew that it was something, which once broached had to be explored thoroughly and fearlessly. Fearless, is not what she was feeling at the time however. I did warn her that if she decided to go forward with a full transition, that “our relationships would change.” This open ended statement of fact from my standpoint seemed to be unavoidable truth. I’ve never seen a relationship touched by the transition of one partner that was not profoundly affected. No matter how supportive the partner may be, it is an earth shaking, profoundly altering process that affects the transitioner and all those intimately around them. I said “changed”. Ryan heard “end”. That was an implicit caution. I could not promise Ryan how I would in the end react to a full transition. I felt that, at my age and after all I’ve been through, I knew myself pretty well and sexual ambiguity or fluidity was not one of my personality traits. I didn’t and don’t hate, despise or fear men. I just had always really, really liked women and I really, really loved and was proud of being a dyke.
Through the fall and early winter of 2007, Ryan adopted a cautious stance that s/he was gender queer and was opening himself up to his masculine side. I will state here that I do not consider gender queer or gender-variant identity necessarily just a phase that people go through when they are confused or afraid to make a commitment to “real transition”. Every one of us who struggle with our gender in some way, goes through a process of discovering where we are most happy. For many people, both polar gender roles and identities and expectations are as irksome and they find their personal peace in a place undefined by standard expectations.
It is unhealthy and unrealistic to jump to such a radical conclusion that you can know from the outset exactly where your destination lies in such a dramatic personal journey. Furthermore, the solutions we craft for ourselves are usually compromises between our inner impulses, those around us, our resources and our culture and society as a whole.
Through this time period, we both took a bit of a step back from the intense questions about where Ryan was going and how that was going to affect our relationship. This was stewing time, a time for quiet rumination and reconsideration. Ryan was doing it and I was doing it. We didn’t talk about it all the time but it was always in the back of my mind and I suspect his too.
Through the fall of 2007, LGB and T solidarity was put to the test with the debate over wither gender identity and expression would be protected as part of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) then before congress. As a co-president of the Seattle LGBT Center and a committee member of Ingersoll Gender Center, I was very active in this issue at the local level, organizing rallies, networking and lobbying legislators. The matter of solidarity and inclusion was a settled issue in Washington State with the passage of our own inclusive employment and accommodations protections for Lesbian, Gay, and Transgender people in 2006. In national politics, however it seemed that the question of how strong the bonds of our community would hold was put to a severe test. When it appeared that Trans-inclusion would cost us dear votes in the Senate, Barney Frank and the key Gay and Lesbian political organization The Human Rights Campaign (HRC) went back on their commitment and removed trans-protective language from the legislation. HRC Executive Director Joe Solomonese had vowed his unwavering support for a trans-inclusive ENDA just months before at the Southern Comfort transgender conference in Atlanta. HRC’s quick capitulation was a bitter blow but it was not unexpected considering their shaky history and recent conversion to the cause. The response from the grass roots queer community was rapid and dramatic under the banner “United ENDA”. Eventually over 400 LGBT and allied organizations signed on to this coalition anchored by the Gay and Lesbian Task Force (aka “The Task Force”). Virtually every major queer rights organization except HRC quickly lined up behind inclusion of transgender protection as the only acceptable option for ENDA. The community said: we will leave none of our people behind and Transfolk are our people. Realistically everyone knew that the actions in Congress were a hollow show at any rate. President Bush had made it amply clear that he would veto ENDA if it were to pass.
In the end we got no legislation but the most amazing outcome from the whole process was a galvanizing of the queer community and a deep and heartfelt discussion about what we have in common as a community and why we are bound together in our search for equal rights. It dominated every queer blog, magazine and newspaper for months.
In just a few years, the consensus at the queer community grass roots had quietly come around to the understanding that there are no clear lines between Gay/Lesbian/Bi/Queer and Trans. It’s all shades and mixes. This new consensus took place outside of the beltway and it took the pols and the power brokers completely by surprise when they got crossways to it. In 2009 and beyond, it appears that they now got the Gospel and they know that’s not a battle that they want to be on the other side of again.
Early in 2008, Ryan and I decided on a whim to go to Port Townsend for dinner. Over dinner, Ryan mused, wondering what it would be like to “bind” (wear a tight binder to flatten his chest). On the return trip, we barely missed the ferry and had about an hour wait till the next one. We had plenty of time to talk. I felt we had let things stew long enough. I felt that we were avoiding communication because of the huge issue hanging over our heads. I urged him to take some chances and explore where this was taking him. I reiterated that change doesn’t have to mean the end. It did entail risk and I couldn’t make promises considering the unknowns but the grey stasis that was settling over us was a worse alternative. We both look back at this talk at the Kingston ferry dock as the point that his transition really began in earnest.
In the following weeks, I began to use masculine pronouns with him. I made the occasional mistake but it takes just a little practice when your partner of 13 years changes gender. When he called and talked to his mom, her primary question was, “Are you and Breanna going to stay together?” When she was assured that we didn’t have any plans to split up, she was good with it. Thus began the long season of comings out and personal milestones: Coming out to the kids (my children), therapy, at-work transition, and hormones starting in early June.
On August 8, 2008, Ryan changed his gender marker on his Washington driver’s license. This was a great milestone among others of course. For me it marked an interesting transition too. For the first time in over 15 years, I was in the position where I could legally marry my life partner.
In June of 2008, The Washington State “Everything but Marriage” law went into effect for us as we did not opt out on it. It is very possible that we are the first couple in Washington State to be everything but married who are now in the legal position to get conventionally married. Theoretically, we weren’t even eligible anymore to be domestic partners as the law stated that it was only for same sex couples and opposite sex couples where one partner is over 65. Once again, my legal relationship status was grandfathered over and once I passed out the door it would lock behind me and I couldn’t get back in.
After a while Ryan began dropping little hints about getting married. At first I passed it off as a kind of ironic kidding around. Progressively, it became clear that he was in earnest and he began to take my non-committal reaction as personal rejection. I implicitly felt uneasy at the thought of getting married myself when the marriage rights of all queer people had not been completely secured.
Ryan was starting to get sullen and touchy about the subject and no amount of reassurances about my standing by him over so many years and through so many passages and trials seemed to reassure him. Certainly he knew that these were challenging times for our relationship and my coolness at the proposition of hetro-nuptials confirmed his fears that things were not going well. To be honest, there have been some pretty rough patches through this process. In 2007, Ryan was diagnosed with bipolar disorder type II and concurrent with all of this he was working through various treatment regimens. Sometimes things weren’t always going so well. It was starting to feel like our relationship had bipolar disorder.
We often say that when someone transitions, everybody around them transitions. It is a scary, amazing, tiring and seemingly addictive process. I found my own sense of gender and gender performance changing. As Ryan joyously embraced his masculinity, I found myself moving more to my femme pole. We both agreed that we were, if anything, more queer than ever. In a way it is strangely reassuring to know that at 51, I can still learn some new things about myself. I now sometimes joke that my sexual orientation is homo-flexible.
I continued to mull it over privately and look at the matter from different perspectives. On one hand, I always have felt that if you believe you naturally deserve some right, you should own it and act in a manner consistent with that realization.
After a while, it seemed like the outlook for same-sex marriage was on an inevitable trajectory. First in Massachusetts and then in Connecticut, Iowa, Vermont and provisionally Maine, queer marriage seemed to be on the roll. Despite the sad reversal in California, optimism was in the air. In Washington, Queers could all but get married. I progressively softened my stance to, “I will only get married in a jurisdiction that offers equal marriage rights.” Eventually I softened my stance to “oh what the heck.” Then came Referendum 71.
Soon it became clear that my community was going to have to fight, once more against mean-spirited initiatives to turn back the clock. It seemed we were right back in the dark ages of 1993, when we had to fight off the southern invading armies of Lon Mabon’s “Oregon’s Citizen’s Alliance”, attempting to crush us beneath the heel of initiatives 608 and 610. It was suddenly so clear to me: Until equal marriage rights were finally and irrevocably secured for my family and friends, for my community as a whole, my lot would be bound with theirs. The principal of solidarity and community, of leaving no one behind cuts both ways. As a transgender, queer woman, I don’t represent a powerful or numerous constituency but principle is principle.
I had been toying with the idea that by marrying Ryan, we would be making a statement about the irrational and arbitrary nature of marriage laws in Washington State. I had discussed the matter with a mentor in the cause, exploring whether we could make a political statement of it in some way. In the end, however, I knew that few if any would get the point. Neither hardcore adversary nor fence sitter would be woken from their stupor and say, “Wow! I never realized what a thoroughly arbitrary and irrational house of cards our marriage laws are, built on an illusory assumption of gender determinism and invariability. How could I be so blind?” They would just see either a middle age straight couple getting married or, if they dug deeper, a couple of queers trying to skirt the law through a loophole. To my friends, my family, my partners in the cause, I could not fault them if they felt betrayed, slighted and left behind at the first opportunity.
I am happy to say that now Ryan and I are in complete agreement that we are happy to stand with all our queer family and insist on nothing less than unqualified equality and respect for all of our relationships. The ships are burnt and the pots are smashed. There is only forward to victory and the common goal of our brothers and sisters in arms for a righteous cause. Everyone on both sides knows what is at stake. We have made no secret of our intentions and our goal. They know the symbolic power and social grace granted by the concept of marriage despite the incessant debasement it has suffered at the hands of so many straight couples. Marriage is a contract with our community as much as it is with each other. My people, my community are those who have supported and loved me through these challenging times and whose humanity and heroism have inspired me.
That is why I cannot marry my husband now. We will not marry until we can all celebrate together.
Originally posted at: http://ingersollcenter.org/content/why-i-cannot-marry-my-husband-yet