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It’s I Think We’re Alone Now Week at Autostraddle — a micro issue dedicated to being on your own, whether on purpose or by chance, and all the ways we’re out here making it work.
Last year I developed a sudden interest in marriage. I could blame the approach of my 30th birthday. I could blame the fact that I’m in the most mature relationship I’ve ever known with a total babe who says things like, “Let’s work on our communication.” Instead, I blame the Instagram page for Dancing With Her, a queer wedding publication that blasts my feed with images I can only describe as “gay wedding porn.” I regularly stare at freshly-married wives grinning in their matching suits and scroll through beautiful butches kisses underneath their wide-brimmed hats and think, “I want that! I also want their bulldog who’s wearing a tie!” Then I remember that I’ve been in three long-term relationships, two of which ended in earth-shattering break-ups. Could I even make a marriage work?
What I appreciate most about queer people is the fluidity of our lives — our ever-shifting gender expressions, our ability to blur friendship and romance, our knack for U-Hauling all our plants into the same home and then dipping out two months later to “focus on boundaries” without much consequence. It’s messy, but it’s the reason why queer folks tell the most incredible stories. When we legally and symbolically bind ourselves together, we’re exchanging some of that fluidity for commitment. Once we marry, breaking up is hard — I mean, really hard — to do.
Still, queer people are getting married, some more than others. A 2011 Williams Institute study found that 22% of “same-sex” couples in the U.S. were legally bound in some way, and 62% of those couples were legally recognized as women. In Massachusetts alone, the first state to recognize the freedom to marry, 75% of gay married couples were female. There are no current statistics on gay divorce rates in America (and acknowledging that many people in “same-sex” marriages are trans or non-binary makes gathering this information all the more complicated), but a UK study by the Office for National Statistics found that as of 2016, more than three quarters of gay divorcées were lesbian couples.
Yep, people in my community (which includes queer women and gender-fancy folks) are getting divorced at notable rates. Lisa Power, founder of the gay rights charity Stonewall, credits U-Hauling with the failure of queer marriages. Dr. Lauren Costine, author of Lesbian Love Addiction (an actual book— not a PornHub video), says that oxytocin released by estrogen-dominant bodies causes some of us to rush into marriage and end it when the chemicals wear off. Whatever the reason, I wanted to know what it was like for someone like me — a queer creative in their 30s with no kids and minimal assets — to get hitched and quit.
I was shocked when my ex-partner Kate tied the knot with a woman they’d dated for less than two years. When Kate and I dated, we played in a folk band named after a gender theorist and shouted down the institution of marriage, a heteropatriarchal scam rooted in property ownership, power and misogyny.
We were factually correct. Early marriages had little to do with love and everything to do with economic exchange between families. Kate, now a 34-year-old trans reporter living in Los Angeles, was still “not a marriage person” when they met their next long-term partner, but they saw a future together. The advantages of a legally-recognized partnership suddenly made sense.
“At the time, I had and still have chronic migraines and was hospitalized pretty regularly, and that was important. Pretty early on, we had decided we would have a domestic partnership so that I could get health insurance,” Kate said. “And so marriage being the next step, in terms of legally tying us together, didn’t feel like as big of a deal.”
Rae, a 34-year-old Chicago-based dancer, grew up in a Black Christian household in Missouri. Her stepfather was a minister. Even though her family didn’t support her queer identity, the blueprint they drafted for Rae’s future ran deep.She met a woman she loved in college, and after a few years of dating, marriage was the obvious next step.
“I think [my wife and I] were both still believing in this idea that you find someone you love, you get married, you have kids, you have a successful career, you buy the house — a very prescriptive way of living,” Rae said.
For Rae, creating a new family through the symbolism of marriage was an important part of healing after a traumatic coming out process. “My wife had heavy care-giving vibes,” she said. “I think in some ways, even before we dated, she played a huge role in helping me get out of where I was.”
For Kate, marriage brought new meaning to the word commitment. “[Marriage] forces you to deepen this relationship that you have with this person, and it really changes the way you think about them. You really do become family, and you become family with their family,” Kate said. “You can never break up. Not never, obviously. But you don’t get to give up. You get married. You can walk out, but then you have to walk back in again.”
But how long do you have to walk out and walk back in before you can’t walk back in anymore? Does the commitment of marriage keep in harmful patterns for too long? Five years into their marriage, Kate initiated divorce when patterns in their relationship began to feel unhealthy. “I was just like, I don’t have to do this anymore. I don’t need to bear this,” they said.
Rae ended her marriage of seven years when it just didn’t feel right anymore.
“I just had a nagging feeling in my stomach that wouldn’t go away,” Rae said. “It reached a point where it kept bubbling up, and I didn’t really have a choice.”
In any other relationship, you could break up and go your separate ways (and only see your ex at every single queer event and/ or brunch place in your city). When you end a queer marriage, you’re saddled with all the emotions of a breakup, plus the legal process of divorce, plus the weight of having thrown away a freshly-won queer right.
“There was a part of me that was a little bit… felt pressure to have my marriage succeed because we fought so hard to get it,” Kate said. “I felt this little bit of failure that was like, on behalf of all queer people we have not made this work.”
After Rae’s divorce, her family’s homophobia resurfaced. “I think for a minute my family was like, ‘I think she might be straight now.’ After I got divorced, a couple of people said things that made me realize they didn’t actually see my marriage as valid,” Rae said.
The fresh rift in Rae’s chosen family left her feeling even more isolated. “Once we split, people were confused and were trying to be fair. As mature of a person as I like to think I am, I didn’t want fairness. I didn’t need fairness at the time,” Rae said. “I needed to know that some people were my ride or die. And there were people who fulfilled that for me and there were people who were that for her, too, which caused an awkward split that I still feel today.”
Awkward friendships are part of any breakup, but in Rae’s life, her friends were the people who literally planned her wedding. Her entire community invested their time and faith in her marriage. As a queer, interracial couple from drastically different backgrounds, Rae and her wife were a symbol of hope for queer folks who wanted to believe that marriage really works. When Rae’s marriage crumbled, her support system crumbled, too.
“The idea of community is something that I still struggle with,” she said. “What is queer community now? What does that look like in my life? It just made me take pause and be very conscious now of not allowing my idea of community to put a person or even a couple in the center of it.”
Kate’s family offered them emotional and legal support throughout their divorce process. “I had become so isolated in my relationship because of the nature of it that I didn’t have much of a queer community,” they said. “My brother learned and immediately got on a plane and flew to LA. And my sister, she was also really really great and would talk to me pretty much constantly. My mom was so, so sad for me because she’s also been through a divorce and thought that this foreclosed my happiness for the rest of my life. And my dad was just like, here are all the things you need to do to protect yourself, because he’s an attorney.”
Kate used social media to get the word out about their divorce and avoid as many awkward conversations as possible. “When I finally filed for divorce, I put up a facebook announcement that was like, ‘FYI I just filed for divorce! Not sad about it. I’m really happy and really grateful that I was married, but just so you know, I am not married anymore.’ The response was really sweet. I think because I put it out that I was happy and not sad, people were fine about it.”
Both Rae and Kate had few assets and no kids. While their divorces lacked the messiness of custody battles, the legal divorce process still took a financial and emotional toll.
“Because we’d been married for less than five years at that point, I was able to file for summary dissolution, which in California means that you don’t have a ton of assets to split up, you don’t have kids, and you just want a quickie divorce, basically,” Kate said. They still had to hire an attorney to help them fill out the forms. In the end, the divorce about $1000 and a “big headache.” About a year and a half after ending their relationship, Kate’s legal divorce was finalized. Then Kate’s whole life opened up.
“I never had a specific plan for what my life was going to look like when I was older, so getting a divorce… it makes things more interesting, right?” Kate said. “I just feel lucky. I’m a trans person. A lot of people have said to me, ‘Oh, you married the wrong person,’ like that’s such a sad thing, and I’m like, did I marry the wrong person? Because it felt really right when I did. I learned a lot, and I felt like we really grew a lot and shaped each other and changed each other. I know that it had some serious, serious problems, but I don’t think I did marry the wrong person. I think that concept is really rooted in that hetero narrative where you meet one person and it’s done.”
While my ex-partner Kate has the experience of a divorcee with a mature and realistic outlook on relationships, I remain unmarried without a bed frame and continue to spend my nights scrolling through Dancing With Her. Thanks to Kate and Rae, and I know that divorce might be on the horizon for many of these perfect, gorgeous, “look-at-our-matching-Shel-Silverstein-tattoos” couples. Is queer marriage still worth the risk? Maybe. According to Rae, it’s a good idea to have an escape plan.
“If you’re trying to get divorce,” she said, “know how to get it done cheaply and don’t take the cat.”
*some names have been changed at the interviewees’ request