(This article originally appeared on Huffington Post on July 29, 2015.)
Can we talk?
It seems like EVERYONE in America is talking about one thing lately. They are talking — and talking a LOT — about the legal recognition of same-sex marriage and the recent Supreme Court decision. Hey, no one could dispute that intelligent discussion (with the emphasis on INTELLIGENT, I must stress!) is always a wonderful thing. However, the heart of any important issue gets lost when high emotions, political agendas and cultural prejudices are thrown into the mix. While watching the daily news coverage of the quest for marriage equality over the past year or so, it’s clear that there was plenty of all three — and still is.
I am fortunate enough to live in New York, a state that has recognized gay nuptials since 2011. I’m also immensely happy and grateful that almost everyone in my daily life has been amazingly supportive through the years: of both my being openly gay and of my marriage. However, it took me almost a year of being “legally married” to learn the defining nucleus of marriage itself — and I’ve learned that the central core of the issue is the same whether that marriage is between two men, two women or a man and a woman.
I vividly remember an incident that happened when I first came out of the closet, at age 21. When I told my mother I was gay, she was pretty cool about it… but she also took the opportunity to make a brutally frank remark: “Well, good for you. You have the chance for a good life. You don’t HAVE to get married and have kids!” Needless to say, her idealistic visions of being a housewife and mother had somehow soured on her pathway from pretty young virgin bride to middle-aged virago with four grown children. My big sister Lisa, a lifelong feminist and intellectual, offered a more kind and astute outlook when I came out to her: “You are so lucky. As a gay man, there is no set blueprint for you in society. You have the power to make your own pathway!” It was a much more empowering message, and one that made its imprint on me to this day. As a younger gay man, I didn’t feel the need to conform to the same “expected” (for lack of a better word) road map that a straight man of my age might take. That, of course, would have included marriage. Still, even before I came out, I knew many same-sex couples who lived together and were every bit as devoted to each other (some even more so) than their heterosexual peers. Was their love and commitment any less valid? Looking back, even as an unsophisticated kid, I knew that their commitment was already the essence of marriage in its purest sense, regardless of their genders. (This is why I always emphasize “LEGAL RECOGNITION OF same-sex marriage,” not just “same sex marriage,” when discussing the current issues.)
I didn’t predict that 23 years after I came out, a “legally recognized same-sex marriage” would be on the self-made pathway that my sister alluded to. And of course, I certainly could never imagine (who could?) that my boyfriend Joe Aiello and I would be wed by the one and only Joan Rivers — twice. Joe and I were married in an impromptu and admittedly somewhat campy ceremony at a Barnes and Noble bookstore in New York City on June 30, 2014, while Joan was promoting her new book, Diary of a Mad Diva. Since neither of us had our marriage licenses the first time, Ms. Rivers graciously agreed to marry us again two months later to “make it legal.” The second time around, we came prepared with rings, suits and vows. Being married by a gay icon and cultural rebel whom we both loved for decades was a surreal moment (complete with TV coverage) in our otherwise very “real” lives. But after the media hype died down, after our friends and relatives got tired of hearing the story over and over again, and after we both healed from the grief of Joan’s unexpected passing, it once again boiled down to Joe and I. But this time, there was a difference.
Our relationship was clearly at a new level. Yes, we were and still are friends, and yes, we were and still are lovers. But legal marriage governs over a large and important realm that falls between friendship and love. That realm includes commitment, maturity and responsibility — all of which, again, override gender. They also override any reigning political or social agendas. When one of us was unemployed for two months, it was OUR problem together. When one of us has a work, family or social-related problem, the other one feels the pain — almost instinctively. Living solely for your own needs is no longer option when you are married. I also learned that you can never “delegate” your spouse’s issues to anyone else. Of course, I certainly wouldn’t be so bold as to speak for anyone else’s experience, gay or straight. The “old school” spirit of GLBT equality that I grew up with has always been about personal freedom to make your own choices as consenting adults. But for me, one thing became as clear as that emblematic glass of wedding champagne: The framed certificate that now hangs on our wall is not a political statement or a symbol of any kind of so-called “culture war,” despite what the right-wingers in my own country may think. For Joe and I, that marriage certificate is a powerful reminder to take our vows seriously.
As Joe and I approach our first wedding anniversaries (both of them!), we both still have a hard time dealing with the premature loss of a legendary artist and woman who genuinely cared about the GLBT community, albeit in her own fabulously wacky way. Seeing her image on TV or in print is still painful. Yet, we also get an immense pleasure at knowing how much joy and laughter Ms. Rivers left behind. Most of all, I have to thank Joan for teaching me, intentionally or not, about the true meaning of marriage and marriage equality. What would the self-proclaimed “mad diva” say about that? Hopefully, one of her beloved one-liners: “Oh, grow up!”
(I did, Joan! Largely thanks to you!)