By Ben Jarvis
My husband Pat and I have many anniversaries in our relationship: the night we met, the day we moved in together, our domestic partnership registration. But the most important anniversary, and indeed the only anniversary that we really celebrate, is September 13: the day we were legally married and officially became spouses and husbands under the law.
Marriage matters. Having been a boyfriend and a partner, I can attest that “husband” is a far more descriptive and honest term. It always annoyed me when people referred to Pat as my “friend” at social functions or out in the community. A friend? Really? The man who had access to my bank accounts, who took care of me when I was sick, and who comforted me in his arms when I was sad was but a mere friend? Pat meant far more to me than that and I never let such comments go uncorrected, even if they were made innocently.
Registering as domestic partners provided a bit of clarity in our relationship, but not much. My partner Pat? What kind of partner was he? A jogging partner? A scuba partner or skin diving buddy? Were we partners in a law firm or some other business venture? Context didn’t always convey the nature of our relationship and it was awkward when people had to ask directly. “Husband” solves the problem leaving no doubt as to who Pat and I are to each other.
I came out of the closet in 1994 and met my future husband in 1997. After a substantial courtship, we moved in together in 1999, but sharing the same house didn’t make us a family. We were in love and enjoyed spending time together but our roles in the relationship were clear: I was a renter in Pat’s house and our footing was neither equal nor permanent. He had the ability to evict me whenever he wanted while I had the ability to leave the relationship at any time. Through months and years, however, our circumstances changed and our lives became more intertwined and connected. We upgraded the yard and remodeled the house with both of us providing input. We adopted the stray cats who took up residence on our back patio and began to feel settled, almost as if we were a real family and not just roommates; but sadly, we weren’t. Even after refinancing the house, legally owning property together, and comingling our funds, we had no official relationship. Under the eyes of the state, our situation was no different from two other non-related people owning a home together or sharing a joint bank account: there were no government ties that connected us or that bound us together.
After eight years as a couple, we finally signed our California domestic partnership papers. This added legitimacy to our relationship and created an almost family…almost, but not quite. We were domestic partners under state law and yet were not considered legal spouses. This created issues because certain benefits were only available to spouses, not partners or dependents. We were legally recognized as “significant others” but nothing more. It was frustrating whenever we ran into a hurdle where we found ourselves being treated differently than married couples who were heterosexual. For example, a coworker’s quickie, drive-through wedding in Las Vegas afforded her more rights, benefits, and legal recognition than Pat and I had. Despite our official California domestic partnership, we found ourselves having to explain our relationship to people who really didn’t need to know that we were gay or how long we had been together—a question that was sometimes asked to verify that we were actually a couple. Married people would never have been asked such a question in the normal course of business.
The fact is that until we were legally married, our relationship was nebulous—not to us, but to those around us and to the government. Even our supportive friends and coworkers didn’t know exactly which term to use: Partner? Spouse? Husband? And if they used one term to describe our relationship among friends could they use the same term to describe our relationship in an official capacity? Marriage made it clear: we were husbands. In an instant, our relationship had a name and everyone understood who and what we were to each other. Our marriage also gave me the ability to correct people—like our LDS mayor—when they asked about my friend, Pat. No, Pat wasn’t just my friend: he was my next of kin, my lover, and the man of my dreams; the man who could make decisions for me should I become incapacitated, and the man who would decide to pull the plug should I ever end up on life support.
I readily admit that my feelings for marriage surprised me. I didn’t think the label would matter much given that we had been together for eleven years before our wedding, but it turns out that marriage mattered more than I could have imagined. While Pat and I forged our relationship on our own terms and created our own norms and rules, marriage brought everything together and gave us a context. We were finally a family in every sense of the word and no longer had to explain things to others. When Pat’s father suffered a sudden illness and was placed on life support, I notified my manager that my father-in-law was in the hospital and that I would be traveling to see him and that I would remain with the family until after life support was removed and he passed away. Marriage allowed me to use the right term and to convey the proper message: it wasn’t just a friend’s parent who was ill, it was my father-in-law. As a son-in-law and as my husband’s spouse, I had responsibilities to the family. I took my shift in the ICU and provided support to my husband as only a spouse can. Since I was helping with the care of an immediate family member, I was able to use sick leave to cover my time away from the office.
At the wake, an event that required yet another trip and significant time off, I shared the same grief that my husband and his family experienced because I was family, too. I laughed at the stories of Pat’s childhood with his dad and accepted the condolences of unfamiliar faces as they expressed their sadness about our family’s loss—and it was my marriage that allowed me to call myself a legitimate and legal part of the family; not a close friend.
Marriage is important to Pat and me because it normalizes our relationship. Our marriage vows, vows that were deeply personal, vows that we wrote for one another and that buck traditional nuptials, encapsulate the love and respect we share for each other. Our marriage brings together our two families, connecting people who previously had no bonds between them. Our marriage demonstrates a commitment that no other relationship status conveys: we are not roommates, boyfriends, or two individuals in a civil union or domestic partnership…we are married. We are married and we have joined our lives together, supporting one another and making a safe, peaceful refuge from the stresses of the world. We are married and have taken on the responsibilities of being extended family to our brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, and cousins. This means traveling to weddings, funerals, high school graduations, as well as making time to help our aging parents with their needs, regardless if they are our biological parent or parent-in-law. We are married and that means that our friends and family know that we are a couple. If time passes and we don’t speak to people for a while, they don’t need to ask “Hey, are you and Pat still together?” as they might if we were casually dating. Likewise, friends know that if they invite one of us to a function that they are, by default, inviting the other. Marriage provides a context of permanence that offers our friends predictable and normal social expectations when interacting with us. It is difficult to overstate the importance of these norms and the significance they carry in everyday conversations and in people’s perception of us as a family.
There is another reason why our marriage and love for each other is important: it shows other people how to do it. One of the greatest compliments we received at our wedding came from a friend of ours; a mother whose son had come out in high school. She supported him from the start and wanted him to be happy which included him finding a partner and settling down; but she was candid in saying that she didn’t have many examples to draw from and that it was difficult to visualize her son’s future as a gay adult. What does it mean to settle down and what could she expect from her son’s partner when and if he brought one home? Could she ever think of her son and another man as being an actual family? And if her son did find someone he wanted to marry, what would a gay wedding look like?
On a warm summer’s evening in downtown Los Angeles, in a beautiful courtyard at the city’s historic Union Station, she got her answer. She watched our adopted niece and nephew walk us down the aisle, she listened to our vows, the toasts, and saw the joy my parents had in attending the wedding of another one of their children. The ceremony was followed by an incredible celebration that occurred in an active train station, involving not just the people we invited, but also thousands of strangers walking by, some of whom offered their greetings and support. Before leaving, our friend found us and said “Now I know what a gay wedding looks like and this is what I want for my son.” Her words were the best gift we could have hoped for.
It is important to understand that people did not gather together that evening for a commitment ceremony or to witness the signing of domestic partnership paperwork. Our friends and family gathered for a wedding and they joined with us in celebrating the happiest day of our lives. The only thing that would have made the day even better would have been if some of my LDS friends from my hometown had joined us. They were invited, but not a single one of them came. Their absence stung a bit, particularly given that many of them were involved in the Proposition 8 effort, but that disappointment was mitigated (mostly) by the love we felt from our family and friends.
Almost five years into married life, not much has changed. We work more than we should, we have great friends, and we still manage to get out and do our hobbies: Pat with his hiking and me with my scuba activities. We are your typical couple living in the suburbs, making our way through life’s ups and downs. The fact that we happen to be two husbands instead of a husband and wife doesn’t matter in the least. As marriage becomes available to more gays and lesbians, my hope is that people will take advantage of all that it has to offer because marriage matters.
Marriage is a commitment for the long haul. It is a declaration of love and support that people have for one another. Our marriage may have been groundbreaking in one sense but in most other ways we are as boring and as typical as everyone else: we are simply two happy people who are madly in love who are building a life together. I hope that all gay women and men across the country will soon have the opportunity to be just as boring and ordinary as we are!
Ben Jarvis is a BYU graduate, returned missionary, and is the product of seven generations of Mormonism. Ben is an avid scuba and free diver and is a volunteer safety diver for Los Angeles County dive safety and training programs. Ben and his husband Pat were legally married in 2008 and make their home in Santa Clarita, CA.