(Originally published in Purpleclover.com)
We had been living in a state of undefined togetherness for about a quarter-century when we decided there should be something on paper to connect us in an official way
In June of 2015, on the day the Supreme Court recognized marriage equality, I was visiting my stepdaughter in Woodstock, New York. Technically, she wasn’t my stepdaughter because, after almost 30 years together, her father and I were not married.
Why is it that the English language can keep up with every technological advancement to come our way, adding new vocabulary by the minute—”Googling,” “texting,” “sexting,” “blogging,” “vlogging”—and yet be so resistant to a dictionary update when it comes to long-term relationships? I have searched for something more dignified than the word “boyfriend,” particularly since my “boyfriend” is a card-holding member of AARP. The options are few.
“Lover,” “significant other,” “longtime companion”: All better suited for someone who is gay or geriatric. Then there is “POSLQ,” a census acronym that is fun to say, reminds me of a possum and translates into Persons of Opposite Sex Sharing Living Quarters. The term “spousal equivalent” had potential until I realized that it reminded me of a sugar substitute. Carlos is my spousal equivalent. All the great taste of a husband and only half the commitment.
In 2007, Carlos and I had been living in a state of undefined togetherness for about a quarter of a century when we decided there should be something on paper to connect us in an official way. We were growing old. Together. Carlos creeping toward his sixties, with me twelve years behind. We started doing what older people do. We talked about aches and pains, ailments and losses—loss of hair, loss of teeth, loss of hearing, loss of people, loss of parents. Some prematurely. We thought about security, social and otherwise. We thought about getting married.
For him, the word triggered failed marriage memories. For me, it never meant much at all. There had to be something else. Contrary to popular belief, we were not common-law. California abolished common-law marriages well over one hundred years ago. My research finally led to another clunky couple of words that seemed well suited to the needs of commitment-phobic couples in search of marriage-light: “domestic partnership.”
One morning, the two of us rolled out of bed and decided it was time to go to our local city hall and check this domestic partnership thing out. The process seemed to be something akin to getting a parking permit or a dog license: a few forms, a $25 check, a small investment of time. I barely brushed my hair. Carlos wore some stained gray sweats. Mine were blue, with holes.
We entered West Hollywood City Hall. Two women behind the counter were in the midst of conversation. We waited a few minutes for a “may I help you” or some such customer service-oriented cue but, since none came, I spoke up: “Excuse me.”
The conversation stopped but neither of the women came any closer to the window. One looked at her watch as if we were already taking up too much of their time.
“We’re here to become domestic partners.”
Almost immediately, the woman’s “I can’t be bothered” posture straightened up and her dull go-away face brightened.
“Oh, domestic partners,” the younger woman said in a sing-song manner that didn’t seem quite right for parking permits or dog licenses.
“Oh, that’s wonderful, here you are,” said the older woman. She clapped her hands together before pulling out some paperwork for us to read, date and sign.
Sensing that the grinning clerks were overly invested in our every move, we quickly wrote our check and signed on the dotted line.
“Now if you’ll please stand over there by the reception desk in the main lobby,” the younger clerk instructed, her voice oozing with anticipation.
“We’ll bring out your certificate in just a few minutes,” said the other.
City hall seemed to grow quieter the longer we stood. Carlos and I shared an occasional glance, an uncomfortable smile, but nothing was said. I thought about the two of us together. How we met. How I followed him home. The friction. The fights. The lust. The love. The life we were living together. I thought about the one question that everyone always asked: Why don’t you just get married?
And my standard answer: We’re waiting to see if we’re really right for each other.
The response elicits laughter. It seems like a joke but may be closer to the truth than he or I care to admit.
Just as I started to feel impatient, I saw the ladies heading toward us, certificate in hand. Hand-lettered calligraphy. The closer they came, the clearer the certificate got, until an official hand-off was underway. The certificate left their hands and entered ours. That’s when the screaming began. Startling shouting came from the direction of the reception desk greeter. Shouts also came from above, where a second story opened onto the reception area. West Hollywood City Hall workers filled the area around us and above us. High- and low-pitched voices without harmony, but with unity, all shouting the same word over and over: “Congratulations! Congratulations!”
Carlos and I were both startled. Confetti was being thrown from the balcony, little flecks of shiny silver, gold, blue and red. It floated down around us, landing in my hair and catching on my clothes. Then it suddenly hit me. It’s a wedding. Our wedding. In the city of West Hollywood, at a time when gay marriage wasn’t even on the horizon, domestic partnership was as close as a gay couple could get. I had failed to understand any of this, until a blizzard of confetti surrounded us like we were in Times Square on New Year’s Eve. I was humbled as I recognized what I took for granted. We were an opposite-sex couple; a couple that could marry or not marry as we saw fit.
Almost a decade later, there has been progress on the marriage equality front. Perhaps a new vocabulary for spousal equivalents isn’t far behind. In the meantime, I’m still stuck with the word “boyfriend,” but after thirty-three years it grows on you. Like a comfortable pair of wedding sweats.