Letting the Team Down: Failing at Gay Marriage

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Originally published on Feminartsy. Republished with permission.

We fell in love at a Tegan and Sara concert on her birthday. We fell in love in the back of a cab; our arms touching up the back of the bus. We fell in love in my living room, in our garden, under the leaves of a thousand tomato plants that sprouted from the cracks in the concrete. We fell in love rolling fresh pasta in our olive-green kitchen. We fell in love arguing over the broken timer on our forty-year-old oven. We fell in love on aeroplanes and ferries; on Skype and in tiny love letters pinned to the fridge and sent achingly slow through the post.

Photo Copyright: Lizzie Guilbert

She asked me to marry her in the middle of the night, falling asleep as soon as the words took flight. Days later I asked are you sure and she said alright then and it was decided. We flew into a Canadian winter and stood on a cliff – the edge of the world – and promised to spend our lives making each other laugh. We chose a grey-haired, kind-eyed celebrant who told us she’d never seen two people smile so much during the ceremony and then promised to put our wedding certificate in the mail. When it came, we put the small brown paper with the Canadian emblem in the centre and both of our names typed in capital letters into a drawer.

Three years later we sat in a bus shelter that no longer met any buses and she said she was done and wanted out.  I gasped for air and grasped my elbows, afraid that my body would rip at the seams. She said, it’s just a piece of paper, Gem, and then quieter, I tried not to hurt you. For all of our joint bank accounts and shared wardrobes, for all our talk of travel and home loans, of potential babies – she was right, it was just a piece of paper, easily crumpled and lost with no consequence.

Australia’s refusal to enact marriage equality hurt the most in this moment. Before it ended, I was definitely and defiantly married, refusing to recognise the State’s authority over my relationship status. After, I don’t know what name to give myself. If not married, then what? While the symbolism of our Canadian marriage certificate seemed enough while we were together, there is no ceremony sufficient to undo what never really existed in the eyes of the law.

When I got married in 2012, I assumed that the Australian government would catch up quickly. After all, the law already afforded de-facto couples many of the same rights as married people and even Centrelink jumped at the chance to save some dough by recognising same-sex couples as couples rather than strangely close housemates. It seemed a small step to make and yet the government refused to budge.

The thing is, though, that not all relationships have equal access to reproductive assistance, custody rights or legal recognition and protection. The ways in which relationships are governed differs from state to state but the overwhelming reality for those of us in queer partnerships is that we are denied autonomy over our relationships. Other people, in positions of power, are given a say – the only say – in how we define, structure and practice love. The government assumes I am incapable of making hefty legal decisions about my relationships, whether I want to enter lifelong commitments or end them.

Going overseas to get married is terribly romantic, but if you need to end the marriage for whatever reason, difficulties abound. Australia will, of course, not grant you a divorce from a marriage it refuses to recognise. Unhelpfully, many of the countries that have legalised marriage equality won’t let you get divorced unless you can prove that you live there. This is the case in New Zealand, where at least one of you needs to prove residency before you can apply for a divorce.

In the UK, there are ways around the resident rule if you got married in the UK, but they are vague and complicated. In Canada, individual provinces and territories govern marriage laws so the rules around divorce are varied. In British Columbia, where my marriage certificate was issued, you can apply for a divorce as long as you live somewhere – like Australia – that won’t recognise your marriage. It’s complicated, though, and requires the help of someone who possesses a thorough understanding of legal forms. The dryness of all the legal jargon pertaining to overseas divorce proceedings is perhaps the best antidote to the whirlwind romance of eloping to the other side of the world.

Standing at Equal Love rallies for marriage equality and watching the news about the plebiscite, it’s hard not to feel like a bad example. Stories about men who have been together for fifty years and women who want to bring up children together are the focus here. We are supposed to see their stories and say see, we can do it too. The story, everyone says, is about love.

I understand why we take that tack. Equal love is a much better slogan than trying to argue that people and relationships are complicated and sometimes need legal sanctioning and protection and besides grown-ups should be allowed the autonomy to formalise their relationships in whichever ways they see fit. Love has a much better ring to it.

Once, I went to see one of my favourite feminist academics speak. She told this story about a girl carrying a big, full jug of water to the dinner table and her mother saying over and over, be careful. The girl trips over the edge of the rug and falls. The jug hits the slate floor and cracks into three distinct pieces of pottery. The mother hisses; I told you to be careful. She clucks, satisfied that her expectations have been fulfilled. The jug is broken and the girl is all the more ashamed for her mother’s warnings; I am all the more ashamed for the warnings of anti marriage equality conservatives.

It’s hard not to feel like a failure, like I’ve let the team down. For so long the state has argued that we couldn’t make marriage work; that we might be a threat to the sanctity of marriage. It’s hard to counter those arguments without feeling like we have to prove ourselves, like we have to work a lot harder and longer for much less recognition. When you do threaten the sanctity of marriage, by say, wanting to get divorced, it’s hard not to feel as though you’ve set the whole fight back.


Gemma Killen is a PhD Candidate in Gender Studies at the Australian National University. Her current work focuses on the ways in which queer women’s identities become embodied and are made meaningful in online spaces. In 2015, Gemma moved to Canberra from Adelaide where she wrote for the Adelaide University magazine OnDit. She was also published in Wet Ink, an Australian magazine for emergent creative writing. As a writer, Gemma wants to produce gender-focused work that is accessible and creative.

Gem has written 1 articles for us.

51 Comments

  1. We aren’t supposed to be better; we’re supposed to be equal. You didn’t fail. You didn’t let us down. You reminded us of how the best beginnings don’t guarantee happy endings. Papers and promises, rings and ceremonies aren’t always going to mean forever, but equality means we should get the chance to fail at love just as beautifully or tragically as anyone else. Equality means we have the right to try; it doesn’t guarantee success.

    Thank you for reminding us that what we fight for is the recognition of our shared humanity. It doesn’t have to be perfect; it has to be fair.

    P.S. You did a brave thing. There is no failure is taking chances for the sake of love. Take care of yourself.

  2. In 2013, I got married in the US while living in the US in a state that did not recognize marriage equality. My state didn’t recognize it, but others did, and I went to one of those in order to marry the person I thought was the love of my life. Later, I had to move to a state that did recognize it in order to get divorced. By the time my divorce was finalized, Obergefell was just a few months away. I too felt like a failure. This piece really speaks to me and I thank you for sharing it — you were much better at articulating the hurt than I have been. GBLT folks have this really unfortunate burden in that our marriages are often used symbolically as representing all of our marriages, and the failure of one can be seen as the failure of all — or so we imagine, anyway. But we’re just people and our relationships don’t work out sometimes. Thanks so much for reaching out and reminding me that as a gay divorcee, I’m not alone.

  3. I’m sorry for the pain this has caused you, but I would not think of your marriage as a failure. Although you haven’t had the legal benefits or obligations that come with a recognized marriage, you were at one point ready to make that commitment to a person and I applaud you for that. I refuse to accept the argument that we must be extra sure when we get married and that our divorce rates should be lower. Why? We’ve grown up in the same societies with the same expectations and values as straight people, so why should our decisions be any different?
    When I had to adopt the kid we made together, our judge made a very similar comment about how people like us need to be extra sure and try extra hard. It was the first and so far only time I have felt discriminated against in my life for being gay. We all get to make decisions that may turn out to be wrong at some point.

  4. This is a really touching piece–moving in both its beauty and its honesty.

    I have never been married, but I can identify with the sense of failure when the queer relationship I thought was permanent crumbled. Since then I have often felt a general sense of inchoate floundering; I know that the relationship models I brought from my straight family into that relationship don’t work for me, as they haven’t worked for so many of my relatives; but I’ve also felt that as my LGBT community assimilates to the straight model of marriage, we are losing our ability to think outside the box about how relationships can work. I don’t know where I fit anymore.

    I also was an adult twenty something when my US state legalized marriage, very early in the US fight, and I remember feeling intense that as a single woman, a bisexual woman, and especially as an activist against partner abuse that my community just wanted me and many of the people I cared about, who didn’t fit the public narrative about love, to disappear.

    The truth is, one of the most important reasons we need same-sex marriage is that it makes possible same-sex divorce. That’s perhaps most obvious in cases of partner abuse, but there are many different ways in which the state officially recognizing the end of a relationship is as or more important than recognizing the relationship in itself.

    • I completely agree. Post-divorce I am also really wobbly about the utility of marriage for queer activists and lovers but perhaps endings are when we most need legal sanctions, for protection.

  5. While I’m sorry your marriage failed and the personal pain that’s caused you, you really should try hard not to feel like you’ve “let the team down.” You’re no more the poster-person for every same-sex marriage than me. Just like he who should not be named President-Elect, who is on his fourth wife, is the poster-entity for marital fidelity and how to treat women as human beings by males of the species.

    I hope you find ways to feel better and happier as quickly as possible. I can no more usefully tell you to stop feeling like you’ve let the side down than I can tell you to feel happy and get over it but I hope you can let the former feeling go sooner and my attempt at humour isn’t way too soon and too far off base for you. Aussie humour is tricky to work out for us Limeys.

  6. I felt this way about the idea of getting divorced, but that was really the worst part–the idea. Now, I have to consciously not talk about it around my married friends with kids because being divorced is the best. At least for me. At least as a parent.

    Louis CK probably speaks about it in the way I most relate to:

    I love being divorced. Every year has been better than the last. That is the only time I can say that [about my life]. By the way, I’m not saying don’t get married. If you meet someone, fall in love, and get married. Then get divorced. Get divorced! Because that’s the best part! It’s the best part! Marriage is just like a larvae stage for true happiness, which is divorce. Divorce is forever, it really actually is. Marriage is for how long you can hack it. But divorce just gets stronger, like a piece of oak. No one ever says, ‘Oh my divorce is falling apart. I just can’t take it.’

    I know it sucks now, but it will get better. My marriage was pretty good most of the time, but this still rings true to me:

  7. This was really beautiful, and a helpful commentary on the impact of marriage inequality as well. I hope a bunch of straight Australian politicians read it! Maybe we should print it out and send it to them?

    Hope to see more of your stuff here Gem! <3

  8. This post was really beautiful and sad. I really don’t think you have failed at anything, a marriage that doesn’t work out should not constitute any kind of failure on your part. You’ve also made me again appreciate and realise how easy it will be for me and my fiancée to get married (we’re in the UK, but from Canada & The Netherlands… so we have 3 options). I know so many others aren’t as lucky.

    I hope that the pain and sadness you are feeling now will fade away. Please don’t feel guilty.

  9. Thank you for sharing this with us.

    You have captured the incredible vulnerability and mixed emotions of a reality that you never thought would come.

    “I gasped for air and grasped my elbows, afraid that my body would rip at the seams.” I am struck by your beautiful, heart wrenching words.

    I am sending you hope, healing, warmth and love.

    Thank you

  10. I have been married, and I have divorced. As an enthusiastically divorced person, I offer this perspective: you are a trailblazer.

    Divorce is a crucial component of the institution of marriage, the escape hatch that saves so many people from having ‘forever’ become a life sentence rather than a cherished vow. Queer marriage without queer divorce would only reinforce the damaging notion that if you thought it was right once and turn out to be wrong, you deserve to suffer the consequences forever. Those who come after you are going to benefit from the experiences of ‘early adopters’ of queer divorce: in the helping hand you might be able to lend to someone needing to navigate the system, to the pressure stories like yours puts on various jurisdictions to get their shit together.

    I’m sorry your marriage ended, and I know all of this harmful messaging is real and I’m sorry about that too. But I’ll never not be proud of people who make hard and heartbreaking decisions to save themselves, and that includes you. Much love.

  11. I say be happy that you were not left believing in a lie. No relationship is worth saving if it ends up being one sided or toxic. Marriage has a huge implication that it is forever, when it isn’t. Eventually it does end. Death is an ending, divorce is just an early ending. I don’t think anyone should be put down or feel like a failure when they get a divorce. Just use it as a learning tool and know that there are others who feel the same way. It is part of what makes us human. It’s part of the reason we are no different from straight people.

    With that said, I am very scared of divorce because society does view it as a failure for same sex couples. Divorce is a dirty word. I thought about divorce before getting married and it made me feel way more of a failure than if I ended my engagement. I know I am not a failure if my marriage ends, but it’s hard to not feel that way. My family put my engagement under a microscope. Unlike my siblings, I was asked if this was a political act and if I “really understood” what it meant to be married. I feel like I have to show that I have a perfect relationship because others want me to fail. But what I want is just to love my wife. I want to live my life like it was before getting married: carefree, free of pressure and uninhibited. I honestly didn’t expect to be affected by that kind of pressure… So yeah, I may not be divorced but I can feel some of that pain.

    It also doesn’t help that I never had a positive example for marriage or divorce. You writing out your feelings and what you went through actually helps more than you know. I see comments that make me feel like I am not alone in how I feel or think. It gives me hope.

  12. Beautifully written for such an unfortunate event to happen to you. I understand the feeling of failure and feeling like you didn’t quite do your part. But labels and groups aside, we are still just people. We are all people trying to find happiness in this life and we take chances and we hope and pray they will stick. It’s hard when they don’t but it is by no means a failure on any level. You made a promise to love another human being unconditionally. That is never a failure. You gave it a chance, you gave it your heart and your all. And that is certainly worth celebrating. I hope someday you can find peace with yourself about your journey of loving someone whole heatedly. Don’t forget that your journey is not over dear. Best of luck to you.

  13. We spoke a lot about this in our Queer NY class-a fantastic course at the New School
    That is offered once per year and open to non credit students as well. How marriage became the thing that defined gay rights because it was something straight people could relate too-even though many queer people want to reject the convention of the institution as it stands. Fake it till
    You make it right? Also how marriage equality pushed white wealthy gay men and women to the forefront and the trans and people of color to the back even though they are the founder of the equal rights movement. So complicated and rooted in white supremacy and patriarchy. At the end of the day I do think it’s important if marriage is the correct commitment for you and your partner and perhaps only get the paper if you have children or are in need of medical care and access to your partner at a hospital or hospice. I think there are just so many facets and so many unique relationships and ways to commit that an institution based on trading women for property or business deals between fathers is now different—but different is not completely rejecting the source right? I feel like straight bi pan gay monog poly alike who are younger are looking to different ways to define trust and commitment. Marriage works for some but not others and doesn’t mean that you failed-it just means there’s a different solution to the equation.

  14. Paperwork is the worst, and international paperwork even more so. I’m not even engaged yet but have been thinking about the mountain of paperwork that’s likely to ensue if I go down that path (my current partner is American; I’m in Australia on permanent residency as a citizen of a country that won’t even recognize LGBT *people* let alone gay marriage). I’ve dealt with visa paperwork my whole life so there’s a weird familiarity, but it’s never fun.

    I wish you luck in finding the right people to help you through the paperwork process. It’s hard enough without the emotional strain. <3

  15. Oh yes, I know that feeling of failure well! And the rending of the soul.

    We were the poster child for lesbian couples, commented on for our longevity and family and home. We legally wed on our 20th anniversary. Before our 3rd wedding anniversary, she told me she’d had doubts all along.

    Now we’re in the process of getting divorced and it sucks like no other thing. And looming over it all is the whiff of failure.

  16. You aren’t alone. I got married in Canada in 2005, well before marriage equality was widespread in the states. We lived in Michigan and thought it was so romantic to take a whirlwind trip across the border to say our vows. We weren’t thinking of anything more than that. I honestly, stupidly, never thought about the legal ramifications this could eventually pose and when we crossed back into the states, our marriage still felt real.

    Until it ended a year and a half later and suddenly, I was reminded how NOT real it was in the eyes of the United States government. We couldn’t get divorced. No one would touch it with a ten foot pole. To end our marriage, they would first have to recognize that it legally existed and no one was willing to do that. At the time, there were about six states with marriage equality but moving to another state for residency wasn’t an option for me. And funnily enough, you can cross the border to Canada and get married in a weekend but it still takes a year of residency to end it there.

    It happened eventually, of course, but it took years (and yes, I had to move to another state to do it). And it honestly wasn’t fair. For five years, I was denied the closure a divorce would have given me. I was over the relationship, that wasn’t the problem. But I would think about being trapped in this legal nightmare and it would give me such bad anxiety and make me feel claustrophobic and panicky. It was this horrible mistake that I couldn’t wash off of me. Without the closure, it was hard to move past the feelings of being a failure, even though it was better for me that the relationship ended, even though I was (eventually) happier on my own, even though I was moving on to other–better–relationships. The fact that I had a failed marriage that I could not get out of was always hanging over my head. It was something I needed to disclose and explain to people. It was a part of my identity for much longer than it needed to be.

    And yes, it was a source of shame. I was raised Catholic and my parents have been married for 35 years. I took–take–marriage seriously. After we were married, I had gleefully shouted the news from the rooftops. I was happy and proud and basically an annoyingly perfectly happy newlywed. I demanded recognition as a married couple. I was in your face about our marriage being real. And in retrospect, I can also recognize that I took some pleasure in kind of flaunting it to my conservative extended family and presenting us as a bright shining example of what marriage equality could look like.

    And then I failed. Not just failed but like, went down in a big spectacular ball of flames. Seriously. Bad.

    But I want to tell you there’s hope and a light at the end of the tunnel and all of that. While I was still legally married (but estranged for about three years), I met the woman who is now my wife and we got married in a non-legal ceremony. She moved across country with me to get residency in a state that would recognize my previous marriage and was by my side as I legally obtained a divorce. We became domestic partners and later, finally, became legally married (recognized first by our country, then by our state, then finally nationwide). We’ve been together almost eight years, married for almost seven, and divorce is something I never think about because I know it will never happen for us. We aren’t perfect, we aren’t a romanticized ideal, we aren’t standing up and being an example of how perfect marriage equality can be. We’re just… married, like any other married couple. We bicker and disagree and nag, but we are fiercely committed to each other and to our future and there is so much love, just so much love. This marriage is the real deal. And that tells me that love is not a lie. And that sometimes things have to fall apart so that better things can come together.

    So chin up. You aren’t alone. And we don’t have to be bright shining perfect examples of successful participants of marriage equality. We’re still human and we still sometimes make the wrong choice before making the right one. <3 You aren't a failure and you haven't set anyone or anything back.

  17. Don’t worry you haven’t let the team down at all! I’m sorry you have to deal with all the bullshit paper work, hope it goes smoothly enough. And just because your marriage has ended it certainly doesn’t mean it’s a failure either.
    But omg I’m planning to start at ANU undergraduate next month and I’m hoping to do a minor in gender studies!

  18. I really enjoyed reading this and felt many feelings! I got divorced about 8 years ago and now I’m happily remarried… but even happy marriages are hard and the pressure to be extra good at marriage is not helpful to anyone! The legal situation you are in is so frustrating! I hope there’s some resolution in your future.

  19. Gonna repeat what every else said, which is that you DID NOT LET THE TEAM DOWN. This is why the team is here! For beginnings and endings and everything in between and everything beyond. And thank you for talking about this, because I think as much as it seems unromantic to talk about the legal ramifications of the processes that “legitimize” love, it is necessary. We’ve got to learn from the challenges each other has faced.

    I’m watching my girlfriend go through a divorce (in Germany, where gay marriage is legal but technically not equal to hetero marriage in a few different ways, though you’ve still got to pay just as much to get divorced, so, you know) and it’s definitely an eye-opener.

  20. This is THE BEST piece of writing I have read in relation to marriage equality in Aus, and I have read my fair share.

    Gem, you need to send this to at least Andrew Leigh/Gai Brodtmann (depending on which ACT electorate you reside in) and Turnbull. They need to read this and perhaps it will give them additional insight into a rarely spoken about facet of the debate.

    Thank you for sharing such a personal perspective.

    Hopefully our paths cross in Canberra sometime

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